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After slow start, the Golden Knights are beginning to look like the contenders we expected

Vegas' up-and-down start to the season had some wondering if the decline was coming, but a November winning streak has spurred the Golden Knights to the top of their division and a weekend win was evidence of what this team is capable when it's at its best.

In every season, for every team, there comes a defining moment. Sometimes it’s the blowout defeat that takes the wind out of a club’s sails completely and sends them crashing into the league basement. Others, it’s the sound, flag-planting victory, a win after which chests are puffed out and those in the dressing room stand a few inches taller. There are times, too, the defining moment comes off the ice. Take last season’s St. Louis Blues. Two changes, one behind the bench and one in the crease, reversed their fortunes and set them on the path toward one of the most unexpected Stanley Cup victories in NHL history.

Well, it just so happens that it might have been against those very same Blues that the Vegas Golden Knights authored the moment that will help define their 2019-20 campaign.

In Saturday’s matinee against St. Louis, Vegas trailed by three after the first frame, and given the way the Blues have played this season – stingy defensively and relinquishing few leads – the final 40 minutes seemed somewhat academic for the Golden Knights. But on the strength of a pair in the second, a pair in the third and a Chandler Stephenson breakaway winner in overtime, Vegas not only erased the deficit but left the outing against Western Conference leader St. Louis with a full two points. It marked the first time all season the Blues had blown a three-goal lead and only the fourth time they’ve seen a lead of two or more disappear. That Vegas was able to pen such a victory against the defending champions was proof positive of what the Golden Knight are capable when they’re operating at their best.

Of course, suggesting Vegas is one of the Western Conference’s powers is about as bold a contention as claiming water is wet, the sky is blue and the earth is round. The Golden Knights were a pre-season favorite, given short odds to win the Stanley Cup by most bookmakers and picked as the conference’s representative in The Hockey News’ 2019-20 Yearbook. But after a mediocre start, one that saw Vegas no better than .500 as they closed out the first third of the campaign, it seems as though the Golden Knights are finally beginning to piece it all together and meet expectations.

Consider that since Nov. 27, when Vegas downed the Nashville Predators in overtime to kick off what was a four-game winning streak, there are few teams in the NHL that have been hotter. Matter of fact, only the Toronto Maple Leafs’ .750 points percentage is greater than the Golden Knights’ .737 mark over that span, and Vegas’ 28 points are a league-best total since those final days of November. But more than simply compiling points and moving into control of the Pacific Division, which the Golden Knights top by two points as of Monday, Vegas has staked its claim as a threat by playing the same brand of defensively sound and offensively effective hockey that made believers out of pundits before the puck dropped on the campaign.

Cruise through the underlying statistics and it doesn’t take long to get the picture. At five-a-side across the entirety of the campaign, Vegas has been one of the league’s most steady sides, a testament to the work coach Gerard Gallant continues to do. Per 60 minutes, only two teams have generated more shots, only five more shot attempts and there’s not a single team in the league whose expected goals total matches that of the Golden Knights. Meanwhile, Vegas is above average in suppressing shots and shot attempts, and their expected goals against total is middle of the pack.

It should come as no surprise, however, that the Golden Knights have only gotten better over these past few weeks as they’ve settled into the season. In almost every noteworthy advanced statistical category, Vegas has made strides, improving in generation and limitation of shots, shot attempts, high-danger chances and, most importantly, goals at five-a-side. The percentages in every category have increased, and aside from the hard-charging Tampa Bay Lightning, there is no team in the NHL with a better expected goals percentage than the Golden Knights since they began this surge in late November.

And this all brings us back to the game against the Blues, a contest in which the Golden Knights looked outgunned and dead in the water after 20 minutes. That was a game that St. Louis should have locked down, should have won handily. Yet, when all was said and done, what happened on ice and what shows up in the post-game advanced stat breakdown told an entirely different story. By the time Stephenson – a revelation since his acquisition for parts from the Washington Capitals – slipped home the game winner, Vegas owned a whopping 60 percent of the attempts, 56.6 percent of the shots and had a 56 percent expected goals percentage. It was a game that looked to be St. Louis’ to lose after the first frame, but it’s indisputable that it was Vegas’ to win once all 60 minutes had been played.

It’s because of efforts like that, and the way in which the Golden Knights have shown a consistent ability to control play, that we should expect to see a lot more of Vegas when the games matter most this season. And if it comes to pass that the Golden Knights are the last team standing this season, we may very well look back on a mid-season win over the defending Stanley Cup champions as moment we could see the makings of a team that has exactly what it takes to go all the way.

(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)

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