If you rewind the clock just two years back, the Las Vegas Golden Knights were little more than an idea, as part of the National Hockey League’s plan to create an expansion team in the city often referred to as “America’s Playground.”
But fast forward to today, and not only did the Golden Knights completely bypass those years of sub-mediocrity that most expansion teams have to endure, but they find themselves right on the cusp of the NHL’s Stanley Cup Finals.
How is such an unprecedented rise to power by the NHL’s newest team possible?
Usually, in an expansion draft, new teams are forced to go “dumpster diving,” building their team with castoffs from other NHL clubs. Instead, the Golden Knights — under General Manager George McPhee — smartly assembled a team of talented players to whom other teams could not hold on.
Players like Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith were 30- and 20-goal scorers for their former teams. Alex Tuch a Shea Theodore was promising young prospects who got caught in a numbers game. And veterans like James Neal and David Perron were on the other end of a numbers game: older guys whom their teams eschewed for youth.
This “nobody believes in us” group put the league on notice right from the get-go. The Golden Knights went 8-1 over their first nine games, en route to a 51-24-7 record in their inaugural year; their 109 regular season standing points were fifth-most in the NHL and the third-most points in the Western Conference. They swept the Los Angeles Kings right out of the playoffs (allowing a grand total of three goals in four games), and then took out the San Jose Sharks in six games (scoring 22 goals in those six games, including three or more goals in five of those six games).
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Las Vegas’ up-tempo style of offense usually works well in the regular season for most teams — and it clearly did for them during this year’s regular season — but often comes crashing down for such teams in the postseason, when defenses really clamp down on opponents and try to “grind out” games. Surprisingly, the Golden Knights have shown the ability to win these types of games as well.
That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, as Vegas also happened to lead all teams who qualified for the postseason with a .966 even-strength save percentage during the regular season while combining that statistic with the fact that that they were #2 in the NHL in scoring chances created per 60 minutes. In other words: they stopped other teams from scoring as well as anyone and created as many scoring opportunities for themselves as anyone.
Of course, perhaps more than anything else in the postseason, goaltender performance can sway the course of entire series — if not entire postseasons — in one direction or another for their team. The performance of Golden Knights’ goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is a testament to that. The three-time Stanley Cup champion has been playing like a goalie with such a pedigree; his 1.53 goals against average, as well as his .951 save percentage, is tops among all goaltenders in the postseason who have played at least 150 minutes. He already has four shutouts for the Golden Knights this postseason to boot.
Simply put: if Las Vegas was to advance to the Stanley Cup, it would be an unprecedented culmination to an otherwise unprecedented season. But, it wouldn’t be a surprise to the guys they have in that locker room.