The Vegas Golden Knights, winners of 51 games during the regular season, the first in franchise history, have shocked everyone and made it to the Stanley Cup finals.
To call them a long shot at the start of the season is kind. Before their arrival, the high-water mark for wins by an expansion team was 33 by the 1993-94 Florida Panthers, and oddsmakers in Vegas put the Golden Knights’ chances at winning the Stanley Cup this year at 20-to-1 back in October. Yet to say this team is a fluke or was somehow gifted this Cinderella run is inaccurate.
One of the best indicators of a team’s talent level is goal differential. The more a team outscores its opponents, the stronger that team is, and the Golden Knights’ path through the playoffs was anything but easy.
Vegas first had to get through the Los Angeles Kings, who finished the regular season with a plus-31 goal differential, the seventh-best in the NHL. That proved to be easier than imagined: Vegas swept Los Angeles, posting shutouts in two of those victories. Then the Golden Knights had to contend with the San Jose Sharks, the eighth-best team in goal differential (plus-23). After that, it was a Winnipeg Jets squad that outscored opponents 277-218 (plus-59, the NHL’s second-best) during the regular season. And at the end of it all, the Golden Knights are still standing, having defeated those opponents by a combined score of 43-27, giving them the second-best goal differential in the playoffs — trailing only their upcoming opponent, the Washington Capitals. On a per-game basis, the Golden Knights’ mark is the best this postseason.
And let’s not forget the individual performances, many turned in by players left exposed in the expansion draft.
William Karlsson had 18 goals in 183 NHL games and never more than nine in a season before joining the Golden Knights from the Columbus Blue Jackets. He rewarded his new team with 43 goals during the regular season, the third-most in the NHL behind Alex Ovechkin and Patrik Laine. In the playoffs, Karlsson has 13 points (six goals, seven assists). Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, castoffs from the Florida Panthers, were more proven performers and have continued that throughout the playoffs. Marchessault leads the team with 18 points (eight goals, 10 assists) in 15 games, and Smith has 16 points (two goals, 14 assists). As a top-line trio for Vegas, Karlsson, Marchessault and Smith potted a team-high 10 postseason even-strength goals while allowing only four, the best performance by any line in the playoffs.
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, acquired from Pittsburgh, leads the league in the postseason with a .947 save percentage, a career high, and four shutouts. He has stopped 187 of the 199 high-danger chances, those attempts in the slot and the crease, he has faced at even strength.
Even fourth-liner Ryan Reaves, also acquired from the Penguins by General Manager George McPhee, has been clutch for Vegas Coach Gerard Gallant in the six playoff games he has played. At even strength, Reaves and his linemates have outscored opponents 2-1, one of those goals a game-winner by Reaves in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals, and have posted a 23-14 edge in scoring chances. Almost half of those chances (11) have come in high-danger areas, giving Vegas quality looks from some unsuspecting sources.
“Everybody on this team has something to prove,” Reaves told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We call ourselves the ‘Golden Misfits’ for a reason. We’re doing a good job of proving everybody wrong.”
Now that the Vegas bookmakers have the Golden Knights as the Stanley Cup favorites, there aren’t many doubters left, but this franchise deserves every bit of the success it has achieved. It’s never easy to make the Stanley Cup finals, and it’s tougher still for a team in its first year of existence.
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