With a 4-1 victory over the Colorado Avalanche on Monday night, the Vegas Golden Knights became the first NHL team to clinch a playoff berth in its inaugural season since the Edmonton Oilers and Hartford Whalers did so in 1979-80. So we asked our roundtable of NHL experts:
What has been the most important factor in the Golden Knights' success?
Greg Wyshynski, senior writer: After spending some time around the Golden Knights during my investigation of the Vegas Flu, I arrived at two conclusions about the team's unprecedented success as an expansion franchise.
First, that the team was meticulously crafted by GM George McPhee and his staff, who built a roster several notches better than previous NHL expansion clubs had in their first seasons (seriously, this was Ottawa); leveraging several teams with expansion draft threats to bolster their talent base; and smartly constructing a room of personalities that meshed well in an unprecedented environment. Trust me, Seattle: It isn't this easy.
But the most important factor in the Golden Knights' success has been something intangible, rather than calculable. Consider the carrots that have dangled in front of this racehorse throughout the season. You have a roster of players basically all playing for contracts, either to stay in Vegas or to impress a future employer. You have a roster of players uniquely motivated to get one over on the teams that sent them away, and every homecoming or revenge night became a clarion rallying call for the rest of the locker room.
Then, once the Golden Knights found success in that monthlong homestand to start the season, you had a team of guys playing above their heads with few expectations. No one thought they'd make the playoffs, let alone win the division. So full marks to coach Gerard Gallant and his staff for putting the accelerator down and skating teams out of games for a good portion of the season -- opponents claimed that the Knights played with a playoff intensity, and why not? This was their playoffs, for all they knew.
So the obvious question: Now, as a playoff team, does that mindset change? Can a team play free of expectations if, say, it's just 12 or eight wins away from the Stanley Cup?
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: The fact that the Golden Knights have rolled out four regular lines -- with practically no regard for matchups -- has been instrumental in their success. "Well, we really didn't have a choice," McPhee told me recently. "We don't have the elite players that other teams have, that they can play a lot. We thought that perhaps if we had four lines, and our third and fourth lines were better than other club's third and fourth lines, that could be a way to even things out in the end."
Center William Karlsson leads Vegas' forwards in time on ice (18:37 per game), but that ranks just 59th among all forwards across the NHL. Reilly Smith leads Golden Knights forwards with 22.3 shifts per game, which ranks just 120th league-wide. So many players -- highlighted by Karlsson and leading scorer Jonathan Marchessault -- have over-delivered, seizing the opportunity to take on a bigger role. But also consider this: the Golden Knights are the only team to feature four 60-point scorers (Karlsson and Marchessault are joined by winger David Perron and Smith).
If you ask the Golden Knights why they've been so successful -- and I inquired with few of them recently while in Vegas -- they'll point to a combination of things, but a balanced roster is certainly among them. I'll let winger James Neal explain: "Well, we have a world-class goalie in Marc-Andre Fleury who gives us a chance every night. Our coaching staff has been unbelievable; they give us the opportunity to show what we have. Guys who haven't had chances in the past are thriving because they aren't worried about making mistakes. But it starts with the way they picked our team. They picked guys who fit in the right spots, who can play with each other, so we have a good mixture from our first line to our fourth line."
Chris Peters, NHL prospects writer: I'm with Emily on the team's balance. It's a huge part of what has made Vegas successful. One of the major ways that balance has benefitted the Golden Knights is with goal prevention. That they can throw out any of their lines against anyone and play a more attacking style has made them difficult to play against. It also obviously helps that Fleury is playing at a career level despite missing significant time with an injury.
The Golden Knights are among the top 10 teams in the NHL in goals against per game (eighth) and in shots against per game (seventh). They're closer to the middle of the pack when it comes to possession (12th) and penalty kill percentage (13th), another pair of key goal-prevention stats, but they're still in the top half of the league in those categories. Teams that are legitimate contenders usually rank at or near the upper third of the league in those stats. This may be where the team's depth shines.
Being able to roll the four lines, as Emily mentioned, is huge -- but so is not having to overtax their top four defensemen. McPhee took a lot of heat for taking so many blue liners in the expansion draft, but he has gotten players who can play quality minutes in a variety of situations. There's no natural No. 1, but most teams would love to have multiple players capable of being a No. 2 or No. 3. On paper, I didn't think the Knights had those players back in October. What their defense has done over the course of the season suggests otherwise. And they have a great last line of defense in Fleury. It's amazing how this all came together for Vegas.