Mark Stone missing two months and counting after back surgery threatened to sink the Vegas Golden Knights. Instead, they’ve risen to the top of the Western Conference.
Losing Kirill Kaprizov for several weeks looked like a big blow to the Minnesota Wild. They’ve since moved into first place in the Central Division.
Similarly, in the East, the New York Islanders have more than compensated for the absence of Mathew Barzal and the Carolina Hurricanes have found their game since Andrei Svechnikov was ruled out for the remainder of the season with a torn ACL.
With the NHL playoffs on the horizon, those four contenders have not only survived but thrived after losing a star player to injury. They’ve done it thanks to a combination of savvy trade deadline acquisitions, good coaching and other players taking advantage of bigger opportunities.
“That’s what makes hockey so great is teams have lost top players and continued to go about their jobs and win hockey games,” Carolina general manager Don Waddell said. “Our sport’s different than maybe some other sports. We emphasize it’s a team game, it’s a team sport and there’s 20 other guys that are still going to try to get the job done.”
Minnesota, Vegas, Carolina and New York have combined to go 44-22-11 since each team’s significant injury.
In the Wild’s case, the emergence of young winger Matt Boldy and strong goaltending have made up for not having Kaprizov, by far their leader in goals and assists and a legitimate MVP candidate. Boldy has 13 goals and five assists for 18 points in 12 games since Kaprizov went down.
“It’s a good time for him to really get that hot and get those goals for us,” forward Joel Eriksson Ek said.
Vegas has been used to injuries in recent years, including several to goalies this season that have tested the organization’s depth. It’s impossible to replace Stone, a strong defensive winger who was on track for his eighth 20-goal season, but the Golden Knights used the All-Star break and their annual father’s road trip to reset mentally and physically without him. They have won 20 of 33 games since.
“It was really good for us,” first-year coach Bruce Cassidy said. “Timing was perfect. Some guys got a breather that were a little banged up as well. … In general, it was a great time for us and it showed coming out of it.”
Before the break, the Islanders made a move that ultimately ensured that Barzal getting injured wouldn’t doom their chances of getting back in the playoffs. Veteran GM Lou Lamoriello pounced early by getting center Bo Horvat in a trade with Vancouver, and the 30-goal scorer has fit in just about as well as anyone could have expected.
“He’s extremely strong, he’s great on the puck, can score goals and make plays,” captain Anders Lee said. “He’s made a huge impact in the faceoff dot, on the power play and just up and down the ice. Just having a center like him, you don’t find many guys like him around the league.”
Of course, there aren’t many teams like the Islanders, who pushed the then-defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning to seven games in the Eastern Conference final in 2021 after losing Lee to a major knee injury. If anyone’s built to withstand the loss of a top player, it’s New York, thanks to depth down the middle and smart decisions all over the ice.
“We got four good centermen still. That helps,” veteran forward Cal Clutterbuck said. “I think just generally the style of game that we play and the structure that we play with allows us to get through situations like that. It’s just kind of a credit to the guys who have been in and the way that they’ve been following the plan.”
No teams plan for a devastating injury like what happened to Svechnikov — Carolina’s second significant departure after winger Max Pacioretty re-tore his right Achilles tendon. Waddell thought the Hurricanes initially played like they felt sorry for themselves before figuring out how to win without Svechnikov and Pacioretty.
“We know we’re not going to score as many goals, so we’ve got to be better even defensively,” Waddell said. “We think we’ve got a really top defense and if our goalies stay healthy and continue to play like they have been, particularly lately, that can make up for losing a big-time goal scorer.”
The Hurricanes need their stars to shine for that to be a winning recipe in the playoffs, and Waddell also pointed to the opportunities available for other players in Svechnikov’s absence as a factor.
The same is true for the Islanders, with centers Brock Nelson and Jean-Gabriel Pageau among those picking up the slack without Barzal. Rookie head coach Lane Lambert pointed to contributions all over the lineup as a reason Barzal’s injury has not hurt as much as it could have.
“When you lose somebody like that, or anybody, you have to have other guys fill in and step in,” Lambert said. “Sometimes it’s just about them getting an opportunity and relishing that opportunity and taking advantage of that opportunity.”
AP Sports Writers Dave Campbell in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Mark Anderson in Las Vegas contributed to this report.
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
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