They’re the first expansion team in history to start 3-0. Are we witnessing a temporary emotional lift, or are the Knights better than expected?
The days leading up to the Golden Knights’ home opener couldn’t have been scripted worse, with Las Vegas victimized by the most savage mass shooting in modern American history. But there was a certain magic in the air Tuesday night when it was finally time for the Golden Knights to play their first regular season game on home ice at T-Mobile Arena. The evening couldn’t have been scripted better.
There wasn’t a misstep all night for the franchise as a whole and the players on the ice. The Golden Knights handled the Oct. 1 tragedy with a graceful, gentle touch, honoring first responders by having team front office members escort them to the ice for a pre-game ceremony, and the survivors of the shooting were honored, too. A memorable highlight was defenseman Deryk Engelland, longtime Las Vegas resident and unofficial team ambassador, taking the mic for an off-the-cuff address. It was unheard of to see a player break the fourth wall and speak to the crowd moments before he had to get his mind ready to play a game.
And the hockey gods rewarded Engelland, a man whose single-season high in goals is four. He buried a one-timer past Arizona Coyotes’ netminder Antti Raanta for the Golden Knights’ second goal in what was an emotional onslaught of a first period, with the Knights blitzing Arizona for four goals in the first 10:42, chasing Raanta after three.
The Knights, who had already opened their season with two shocking road victories, cruised to a 5-2 win Tuesday. And now the team many pegged to be a laughing stock, a team that had to bury important pieces Vadim Shipacyhov, Alex Tuch and Shea Theodore in the AHL, has started 3-0-0. The Knights are the first expansion team in NHL history to win its first three games. Unbelievable.
Pretty much anyone with a heart is rooting for this team. The question now is whether we’re witnessing a remarkable honeymoon phase or whether we’ve legitimately underestimated what the Knights can do.
Their schedule hasn’t told us much yet. They’ve enjoyed back-to-back games against the Coyotes, who are rebuilding and missing one of their most important defensemen in Jakob Chychrun. The Coyotes made as many paper upgrades as any team over the off-season but are nevertheless fresh off a 27th-place finish in 2016-17. They’re an easy out until they prove otherwise.
The Dallas Stars, whom Vegas stunned in Game 1, finished 24th overall last season. Dallas also made many splashy off-season moves, bringing in Alexander Radulov, Martin Hanzal, Ben Bishop and Marc Methot along with a new (old) coach in Ken Hitchcock, but has struggled early on adjusting to Hitchcock’s airtight defensive system. They’re not yet firing on all cylinders. Also, new starting goalie Bishop was off to a stellar start in that first game against the Knights, stopping all 19 shots he faced across 43:58 of action before a shot to the helmet badly cut him above the eye and forced him from the game. Only when inferior backup goalie Kari Lehtonen entered the game did Vegas find the twine en route to a victory.
There has been a ton to like about the Golden Knights so far, not just from an emotional standpoint. James Neal looks like the man who once scored 40 goals as a Pittsburgh Penguin. Marc-Andre Fleury has been stellar in goal, posting a .963 save percentage. But the Golden Knights have scored all their goals on second-rate stoppers against struggling teams. Per corsica.hockey, they’re a ho-hum 19th in 5-on-5 adjusted Corsi thus far at 47.62 percent. On the defensive side of the puck, they’re 29th in Corsi Against per 60 minutes at 67.26. They’ve been extremely leaky, allowing a ton of shot attempts, but they’ve had the better goaltender than their opponent in all three victories. Those numbers represent a tiny sample size, but that’s my point…it’s too soon to declare the Golden Knights “not your average expansion team,” especially when the underlying numbers suggest they’ve gotten lucky.
It’s possible Vegas keeps this nice little run going for a bit. Tuesday’s win kicked off a six-game homestand, which also includes winnable tilts against the Detroit Red Wings, Colorado Avalanche and Buffalo Sabres. But the Boston Bruins, St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks also come to town. Circle that Chicago game Oct. 24 as a particularly relevant test. Then we can see if the Golden Knights can show us the good to back up the lucky.
Whatever happens going forward, the Knights just set an NHL record for the best expansion-team start of all-time, so no one can take that away from them. We’ll likely look back on the great opening act as exactly that and nothing more, however. The honeymoon should end soon enough.