By: Nick Erickson
Opinion — The Vegas Golden Knights have risen to power and crushed their competition night after night since they began the 2017-18 season. Many still have their doubts about this team, but are they right in doing so? Are the Golden Knights only doing well because of luck? If so, when will their luck run out?
Taking a look at the numbers on the year, the Golden Knights placed fifth in the league, while having played the number 12 team in the first round. They went on to win, outscoring their opponent by only one goal each game. Should Golden Knights fans be worried about taking on the San Jose Sharks in the upcoming round since they didn’t beat the Los Angeles Kings handily in any one game? Hell no! The Golden Knights shouldn’t be worried at all about their next round.
They’ve played the Sharks four times already this season, won three of four, and outscored them by three goals during their regular season series. Granted, the games they won, they only won by a goal or two, but they’re still finding ways to score against the Sharks. One may credit the Sharks for being on a hot streak, but so are the Golden Knights. Their sweep of the Anaheim Ducks was expected by everyone, including the Ducks’ fans. The Sharks had beaten the Ducks three out of four games this regular season
So, let’s play a fun game of “speculation station” and say that Vegas moves past the Sharks, and makes it to the Conference Championship series against either the Winnipeg Jets or the Nashville Predators. Who should the Golden Knights fear more?
I say the Jets. The Jets have been lighting up opposing teams’ goalies all year. With guys like Blake Wheeler and Patrick Laine having a combined 161 points, those two outscore the top two scorers for the Predators by 36. Furthermore, the Predators have struggled in the playoffs already. The Jets are clicking on all cylinders, having flown past the Minnesota Wild in the first round. The Jets will be the Golden Knights’ first real test if both teams land in the Conference Finals.
Anyone up for another round of the “Speculation Station?” Assuming that Golden Knights gets past the Sharks in the second round and defeat whoever wins between the Jets and Predators, it will become the first expansion team ever to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals during its first season.
It takes 12 years on average for an expansion team to make the Finals. Shocking, right?
Still, think they’re a fluke? I don’t. The Golden Knights are for real. So, writing this on a Wednesday afternoon on the day of game seven for the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs, I must assume that the Bruins will win because they are hosting it in TD Garden, and they are probably annoyed that it’s taking so long. The Bruins would then go on to play the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning would then more than likely play the Pittsburgh Penguins due to the Washington Capitals’ playoff “curse,” which seems to keep them from ever beating the Penguins in the playoffs. The Penguins are 9-1 against Washington and 4-0 in games seven.
I believe the Conference Finals will pit the Jets against the Golden Knights, and the Lightning against the Penguins. I have a horrible feeling that the Penguins will make it back to the Finals again. But I believe that the Jets and Golden Knights will face their first and most difficult test in the playoffs against each other in the Conference Finals. Although I believe that the winner of the Cup will come from Eastern Conference Finals, whoever wins will not do so easily.
If the Golden Knights make it to the Stanley Cup Finals, they will put up a massive fight against the Penguins. Their only problem will be containing both Jake Guentzel and Sidney Crosby. Tied with one of the greatest players in the league so far, no matter how much a majority of the league despises the way he plays, Guentzel still manages to put up points in difficult games.
Both teams are tied with 13 points after the first round and feel that Guentzel will continue to thrive and Crosby will wane like last year as the Finals drew near. The true separation lies in their plus/minus ratio. In this, Guentzel has the edge on Crosby.
With all of these factors working in the Penguins’ favor, how can the Golden Knights put up a fight to take the series? Their defense can lock down opposing team’s top scorers. Players like Brent Burns, Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, and Nikita Kucherov have only put up 10 points in 10 games. They only managed two goals, both netted by Brent Burns. The Golden Knights know how to lock down the top players from each team while putting up points with players few have heard of before this season.
The Golden Knights’ top players include William Karlsson (43-35- 78), Jonathan Marchessault (27-48-75), David Perron (16-50- 66), Reilly Smith (22-38- 60), and Erik Haula (29-26- 55). Their top five players missed 38 games combined, and still put up the fifth most points-per-top-five-player among the remaining eight teams in the playoffs. Those same top five players for the Golden Knights are averaging nearly 30 points more than they did with their old teams before the expansion draft. The Golden Knights brought out talent in these players, which had been hidden in the lower lines of their former teams.
Erik Haula was being suppressed by players like Zach Parise and Jason Zucker in Minnesota. William Karlsson was being overshadowed by Sam Gagner and Alexander Wennberg in Columbus. Jonathan Marchessault was overshadowed by Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck in Florida. David Perron struggled to break out in St. Louis Blues behind Jaden Schwartz and Alex Steen. Moreover, Reilly Smith was overshadowed by the old, yet highly potent Jaromir Jagr with the Florida Panthers.
This team has allowed its players to grow. They grew to become one of the favorites to etch their names in the Stanley Cup. Their defense is potent, having allowed only three goals in the postseason in their four-game sweep of the Kings. Their offense is made of guys coming alive after emerging from the shadows on their journey to something better than what they were on their former teams. But the most obvious reason for why the Golden Knights are winning most of their games is by having one of the best goaltenders between the pipes every night. I believe it goes without saying that Marc Andre Fleury was the biggest pick up for this team in the expansion draft. Considering what they’ve accomplished so far— and what they could potentially accomplish—the Golden Knights have put together a front office staff that knew how to put together an impressive and competitive hockey team.