Can the Vegas Golden Knights win the Stanley Cup this season?
Victoria Matiash, fantasy columnist: Two years ago, Leicester City Football Club blew away the global sports world by winning England's Premier League title for the first time in its 132-year history. Just months earlier, bookmakers' odds on that happening were set at 5,000-1. By comparison, the Vegas Golden Knights were listed at 200-1 to win the Stanley Cup ahead of their inaugural season -- by betting scale, a relatively level stroll through the park. While soccer isn't hockey, the point is this stuff happens in all competition. It's why we watch.
The nuts and bolts appear to be there for Vegas. Even those more skeptical -- including yours truly, who picked the Los Angeles Kings to win their first-round series in six games -- have to admit that the Knights sport the preliminary markings of a playoff winner. In addition to Marc-Andre Fleury's dominance in net, the team's physical play is making an impression. The Golden Knights are well-coached and defensively sound. It's early still, and the route through the Winnipeg Jets or Nashville Predators won't be smooth, but if Fleury can keep it together, a victorious run into June can't be ruled out. Funny how persuasive a sweep over solid competition can be.
Greg Wyshynski, senior writer: I figured the Golden Knights could win the first round of the playoffs, no matter who the opponent was. That it ended up being the Kings gave me pause for a moment, before it was obvious that the way the Knights roll their lines vs. the relative lack of depth for L.A. meant we would see an expansion team in Round 2.
Can Vegas win the Stanley Cup? Sure. Every team that's 12 wins away from hoisting the Holy Grail has a chance, and few teams exhibit the cohesive play and depth of the Knights' lineup. Will they win the Stanley Cup? If this is craps, I'm betting the "Don't Pass" line. The remaining potential opponents en route to the Cup -- the San Jose Sharks, Predators and Jets -- can match the Knights' firepower and their speed. In the case of the Predators and Sharks, they can deploy defensive assets to slow the Jonathan Marchessault line, which has been Vegas' primary offensive engine.
But beyond that ... the house money has been spent. The Knights could go from being a carefree team with no expectations and nothing to play for to one with a realistic shot at a championship. There aren't a ton of rings in that room, outside of Fleury. Does the mindset that got the Golden Knights here change the closer they get to the ultimate prize for any NHL player?
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: Sure, why not? Vegas is flashing the attributes that most Stanley Cup winners possess. To begin, the Golden Knights have superb goaltending. Fleury was strong when he played during the regular season, though that wasn't a lot (he made just 46 starts because of injuries) and he has looked spectacular in these playoffs, allowing just three total goals while posting a pair of shutouts.
The Golden Knights have been stingy on defense, though the caveat is that the Kings struggled with secondary scoring behind Anze Kopitar all season. Nonetheless, the Golden Knights generated scoring chances (131 shots on goal during the series) against a good team. And another thing: They're disciplined. As we see an uptick in whistles across the league in these playoffs, Vegas has committed only 13 penalties. Maintain this identity against, say, the Jets or Predators and I don't see why the Golden Knights can't make it to the Stanley Cup Final -- and once you make it that far, the Cup is there for the taking.
Chris Peters, NHL prospects columnist: If Fleury keeps playing like this, any team playing in front of him would have the chance. But the way the Golden Knights relentlessly attack will make it challenging for any opponent. Even when Vegas was up 1-0 late in Game 3 against the Kings, Golden Knights defensemen were jumping into the play. They were still trying to score. There was no playing not to lose. It was all about stepping on the opponent's throat. That kind of mentality is going to be necessary as they move forward, but it seems to be the only way they know how to play.
I still like both the Jets and Predators better on paper than the Golden Knights to advance out of the West, but I feel far less decisive about it than I did before the playoffs began. Vegas is so much more than a Cinderella story. It is a legitimate Stanley Cup threat that is going to make things difficult for whomever they play going forward.
Ben Arledge, Insider editor: As already noted, there more seasoned teams than the Golden Knights lingering out there in the West. And, for that matter, there are some pretty good hockey teams battling it out in the Eastern Conference. One of those also would stand in the way of the Knights should they navigate their own conference.
Sidney Crosby and David Pastrnak have alone combined for more goals (eight) in their first three playoff games than the entire Vegas team scored through four. In all, the Golden Knights managed just 1.75 goals per game and just 1.53 per 60 minutes. I still think it's unlikely Vegas can get through those thoroughbred teams en route to 16 wins, despite the impressive clinching of the first four.
With all that said, I can't continue to naysay this team. No one thought Vegas was going to hit 109 points during the regular season or win the division. Then again, no one thought it was going to reach 80 -- or even 70 -- points. As mentioned, I thought the Kings would be able to handle the Knights despite their own deficiencies. But I was wrong, and I'll happily admit that now. The Golden Knights are legitimate Cup contenders, and they have shown once again that they were drastically underestimated by bouncing Los Angeles in four games.
The Knights aren't my first choice to win it all, but I can't count them out. The question is can they win the Cup, and it's quite evident that they can. Vegas continues to surprise, and that's the type of team you have to watch for this time of year. But I'm still betting someone comes along and stops Sin City.
Sachin Chandan, ESPN The Magazine researcher: A hot goalie can bring you places, and maybe it can bring Lord Stanley to the Strip. Fleury had a sterling .927 save percentage during the regular season, and has followed that up with a mind-numbing .977 clip in the playoffs, by far the best in the league. For perspective, the past 10 goalies to reach the Stanley Cup Final combined for a playoff save percentage of .926. Fleury brings 118 games of playoff experience from his time in Pittsburgh to form an unshakable defense between the pipes.
The Golden Knights, especially the Marchessault-William Karlsson-Reilly Smith line, dictated the pace of play against the Kings. This could be the weak point if they match up against a team like San Jose or Winnipeg. The Sharks and Jets have been feasting on high-leverage chances, with 29 and 35 respectively. Still, Vegas opened the season at long odds, and now they'll be one of the final eight teams left. The Golden Knights have the skill to win it all. At this point, I expect to see the Stanley Cup at Cirque du Soleil this June.