There’s really no denying it: The Vegas Golden Knights took the NHL by storm this season, becoming the first expansion team in 38 years to qualify for the playoffs.
Their reward for their historic Pacific Division crown? A first-round matchup with a Los Angeles Kings squad that’s hungry to avenge its bitterly disappointing 2016-17 campaign, and also has more success over the last eight seasons than most franchises achieve over decades.
All credit’s due to the Knights, who have done a lot more than just win games for the Las Vegas community, but the bubble is about to burst on their dream season. Here’s why:
L.A.’s smothering penalty kill
Vegas finished tied for ninth in the NHL in power-play proficiency at 21.4 percent, scoring 53 of its 268 goals (20 percent) on the man advantage. Point being, the Knights rely on power-play scoring.
The problem is, they’re going up against the stingiest penalty-killing group in the league in the Kings, who are tops in PK efficiency at a sparkling 85 percent, allowing just 39 goals on 260 chances. Only the San Jose Sharks allowed fewer (34).
Vegas’ speedy core – snipers William Karlsson, Erik Haula, and Reilly Smith – scores many of its goals on the man advantage, so L.A.’s ability to snuff out power-play opportunities could be an X-factor – especially with penalty-killing specialists like Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, and Drew Doughty playing the lion’s share of the shorthanded minutes for John Stevens’ group.
If the Kings can impose their will on the PK, the Knights might be enjoying the Nevada golf courses a lot sooner than planned.
Finger jewelry will do the talking
Gerard Gallant and George McPhee have done an admirable job of building a winning lineup, but their pieced-together roster doesn’t have the advantage of a core of players who have won multiple rings together.
The Kings boast a group in Jon Quick, Jeff Carter, Kopitar, and Doughty that played a key role for the Cup-winning teams in 2012 and 2014. Add in the rest of the Kings’ rings, and L.A. ices a nightly lineup with 17 combined to Vegas’ three, which are all owned by ex-Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
How many rings players are rocking is far from the be-all and end-all in picking a team to pull off an opening-round upset. But at the time of year when games get tighter and clutch players make names for themselves, boasting a lineup stacked with battle-tested players who have lifted Lord Stanley multiple times can’t hurt.
Knights may have peaked too soon
There’s something to be said for a team hitting its stride too early. With all the club’s accolades from its inaugural campaign, no one would hold it against the Knights if they entered Wednesday night without a sense of urgency.
Not to mention, Vegas lost seven of its last 13 games down the stretch, while the Kings are playing some of their best hockey, winning five of their last eight and punching their playoff ticket for the seventh time in nine seasons.
The Knights have had a campaign for the ages, breathing life into a league that has been complacent in its expansion of the sport. But that’ll mean very little, or nothing, when the puck drops on the Golden Knights and Kings, because L.A. knows what it takes to win at this time of year.
Vegas peaked early with its Pacific Division win, and will be in tough against a battle-tested group that has played a lot of playoff hockey in recent years.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)