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Defensemen’s return strengthens Golden Knights’ lineup

Updated April 11, 2022 - 5:09 pm

Three minutes and 52 seconds.

It’s not that much time in a typical NHL game. But don’t try telling that to Golden Knights defenseman Alex Pietrangelo.

“It’s a huge difference,” he said.

The nearly four-minute figure is the gap between Pietrangelo’s average ice time before defenseman Brayden McNabb’s return March 30 against the Seattle Kraken (25:05) and after (21:13). McNabb’s comeback from an undisclosed injury came one game after defenseman Alec Martinez rejoined the lineup and gave the Knights almost their full blue line for one of the few times all season.

The two additions have had a tremendous impact in terms of their on-ice play and the affect they’ve had on the rest of the roster, like easing Pietrangelo’s workload. The Knights hope that continues during their three-game road trip that starts Tuesday in Vancouver.

“It’s easier to survive without forwards than when you start losing veteran defensemen,” coach Pete DeBoer said. “It affects your breakouts, it affects your whole game all the way up the ice. It was nice to get our defensive group back. That solidified our defensive game.”

The Knights have gone through long stretches without some of their experienced players on the blue line. Martinez missed 53 games after suffering a facial laceration that required 50 stitches Nov. 11 against the Minnesota Wild. McNabb, who played all but 21 of the Knights’ games in their first four seasons, has missed 13 this season.

Neither are flashy contributors, but the changes they’ve brought to the lineup have been immense.

The Knights have allowed 10 goals in five games since McNabb’s return, half of which came in Wednesday’s 5-1 loss to Vancouver. They’ve allowed the seventh-fewest high-danger scoring chances against per 60 minutes in that span (9.54), according to the website NaturalStatTrick. They gave up the eighth-most before that (11.82).

“We have one of the best D corps in the league,” left wing Max Pacioretty said. “Getting Marty and Nabber is huge. … It makes a world of difference when you have our top guys back in the lineup, especially on the back end.”

McNabb and Martinez haven’t just impacted the game defensively, though they are plenty good in their own end. Martinez led the NHL in blocked shots last season with 168, and McNabb is tied for second this season with 156 despite the missed time.

The two help speed up the Knights’ breakouts to get their transition game going. They let DeBoer spread out the minutes on the blue line, giving Pietrangelo and defenseman Shea Theodore more time to catch their breath between shifts.

The extra rest has brought out the best in the Knights’ two highest-scoring defensemen. Pietrangelo has five points in his past seven games despite his reduction in ice time. Theodore has three goals and two assists in his past six games.

The additional offense from the blue line has been much needed for the Knights, who were second in points by defensemen last season but are tied for 14th this season. Getting McNabb and Martinez back has allowed them to play the style they want to just in time for their most important games of the season.

“It’s been a little different with them coming back, but in the long run, it’s a better thing for us because you’re not playing as many demanding minutes and you can spread out those minutes throughout a game,” Pietrangelo said. “We can pretty much just roll six (defensemen) throughout a game, and opposing forwards, it’s not fun for them when you’re playing against the six of us.”

Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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