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Golden Knights on struggles: ‘We’re going to dig ourselves out’

William Karlsson was surprised by the question.

The Golden Knights, fresh off a 2-0 loss to the New York Islanders on Sunday, dropped to 1-4 to match the worst start in franchise history. But when asked if the feeling is similar or different to the beginning of the 2018-19 season, Karlsson was surprised.

“That second year, we started like that?” he asked.

It’s easy to forget the times the Knights have struggled because they have been few and far between. That second season ended with the team comfortably making the playoffs by seven points and losing in the first round in controversial fashion to a 101-point San Jose Sharks team. The Knights made the NHL semifinals the following two years, despite making a coaching change amidst a four-game losing streak in January in Year 3.

History shows their destiny won’t be determined by one bad stretch. Yet the Knights’ five games have featured serious issues, including a litany of injuries to key players.

Their upcoming schedule isn’t exactly a tonic. They visit the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners in the Colorado Avalanche at 5 p.m. Tuesday, who will be eager to avenge their loss in the second round of the playoffs last year.

“Obviously it sucks losing,” goaltender Robin Lehner said. “No one likes it. But you know what? It’s a bit of adversity that this team hasn’t gone through yet. Good teams they dig themselves out. … We’re going to dig ourselves out.”

Any analysis of what’s ailing the Knights starts with what they don’t have.

They played Sunday without captain Mark Stone, left wing Max Pacioretty, right wing Alex Tuch, center Nolan Patrick and defensemen Alec Martinez and Zach Whitecloud. They’ve lost 24 man games to injury/COVID-19 protocols through five games (4.8 per game), after losing approximately 121 in 56 games last year (2.16).

Stone, Pacioretty, Tuch, Martinez and Whitecloud had 74 of the Knights’ 190 goals last season (39 percent). They also had 189 of their 517 points (37 percent).

“I don’t think anyone wants to be short as many guys as we’re short and the guys that we are short (are) obviously guys that play big minutes,” defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. “The work ethic’s been there. That’s what we’re going to have to do to win hockey games.”

It’s no surprise the Knights’ offense has fizzled with so many missing pieces. They are tied for 26th in the NHL in goals per game (2) and scored four in their three-game homestand with Stone and Pacioretty out.

The team has still generated looks, as they rank fourth in the league in shots on goal per game (35.8). The finishing just hasn’t been there. The Knights’ 5.6 shooting percentage is last in the NHL. Their power play also continues to be woeful thanks to an 0-for-11 start. Every other team has at least two power-play goals.

“We’ve got to find a way to score,” Karlsson said. “It’s that simple. That’s how you win games.”

The Knights, knowing their firepower would be lacking, talked about playing more 2-1, 3-2 hockey games during this stretch. Their defense, lacking two excellent defenders in Martinez and Whitecloud, has made it a difficult task.

The team is allowing the most high-danger scoring chances per 60 minutes at five-on-five in the NHL (14.51). The Knights are tied for sixth in goals allowed per game (3.8), and third in shots on goal allowed per game (35).

It’s been a stark change for a club that allowed the fewest goals in the league last year.

“When you’re not scoring, you tend to push for a little bit of offense, try to create some stuff and sometimes you get a little bit sporadic, especially late in the game,” Pietrangelo said. “I think we got to trust what we do, system-wise. Trust our structure. Trust that those opportunities will come.”

The Knights believe they’re not far off. Karlsson said it’s “encouraging” they’ve generated chances. Lehner said he’s “not in any type of panic.” The Knights’ last three losses, to St. Louis, Edmonton and Islanders, were all one-goal games in the third period against teams that made the playoffs last year and are favored to be there again this season.

Teams also have come back from worse. The 2019-20 Dallas Stars started 1-7-1 and defeated the Knights in the Western Conference Final. The 2018-19 Blues had the fewest points in the NHL the morning of Jan. 3 and won the Stanley Cup.

The Knights’ dreams are not close to dead yet. But the shorthanded team is still very much a work in progress.

“We’re in the winning business,” coach Pete DeBoer said. “It’s not training camp, so while those things are great, we still have to find ways to win games and that’s where we’re at.”

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

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