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Expansion contender: Golden Knights prove playoff readiness with dominance of Kings

Forget Vegas magic. The Golden Knights have made their own luck in the franchise’s first three playoff games and they’re on the verge of punching their ticket to the second round.

Kings in six. That was the prediction around these parts when we previewed the first-round series between Los Angeles and the upstart Vegas Golden Knights. The reasoning was that the Kings had the edge in experience, had taken the season series and, statistically, had been as good a team, if not better, over the final third of the campaign, complete with a smothering defense and a potential Hart Trophy winner in Anze Kopitar. 

But three games into the first-round tilt between Los Angeles and Vegas, the Golden Knights have pulled apart all reasoning at the seams. 

It started with a Vegas shutout victory to open the series, a game won on the back of Marc-Andre Fleury’s play. The Golden Knights kept the good times rolling at home with an overtime win, Erik Haula scoring the goal that put Vegas up 2-0 in the series. And Sunday night in Los Angeles, it was three goals in the third period — one from each of Cody Eakin, James Neal and William Karlsson — that helped the Golden Knights stun the Kings and put Los Angeles on the ropes. 

So, at this point, the only way we’re saving any face with our prognostication is if the Kings somehow pull off the reverse sweep and take the series in seven. Truth be told, though, it sure doesn’t feel as though this is going to be an instance where Los Angeles pulls off the rarest of playoff feats. Sure, Kings faithful can hang their hopes on the fact that each of the three losses have been by a one-goal margin or they can point to Games 1 and 3 in which they outshot the Golden Knights only to come up short. But the scoreline and shots on goal don’t really tell the whole story, particularly not when the 5-on-5 play has been largely controlled by Vegas.

Take Game 3, for instance. The scoreboard displayed a 39-26 shot advantage for the Kings at the conclusion of the outing, but 15 of the Kings’ shots came with the man advantage. At five-a-side, the margin between the two teams was a mere four shots — Los Angeles’ 24 were slightly more than Vegas’ 20 — but the possession figures and scoring chances told an altogether different story of who controlled the game. The Golden Knights had a 52.5 Corsi for percentage at 5-on-5, and along with that came 53.7 percent of the scoring chances and a whopping 75 percent of the high-danger chances, with Vegas earning 15 opportunities from prime scoring areas to Los Angeles’ five. 

And while a one-game sample doesn’t tell the whole story, a look at the three games as a whole makes the Golden Knights look even more dominant and the prospect of a reverse sweep all the more slim. Across nearly 171 minutes of 5-on-5 play in the first-round series, Vegas has a 57.2 Corsi for percentage, a 54.8 shots for percentage, 61.7 scoring chances for percentage and nearly 67 percent of the high-danger chances. 

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The Golden Knights’ solid underlying numbers permeate through the lineup, too, as there are only three players — Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, David Perron and Tomas Nosek — with sub-50 percent possession rates. Meanwhile, Nate Schmidt is the only Golden Knight with a scoring chances for rate below 50 percent and Brayden McNabb is the only Golden Knight who has been on the ice for a 5-on-5 goal against without also having been on the ice for a Vegas 5-on-5 goal. The trio of Karlsson, Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault has been remarkable, too, with a near 68-percent possession rate across 41 minutes at five-a-side. There’s arguably no line that has been as good through the early going in the post-season. And it definitely doesn’t hurt that Fleury is turning in an absolutely stunning .970 save percentage and 0.84 goals-against average through the first three games.

Make no mistake that it’s the way in which the Golden Knights have commanded play as much as the 3-0 series lead that makes it appear as though this series is simply awaiting handshakes. Consider that when the Kings did pull off the rare reverse sweep, taking each of the four final games in the first round against the San Jose Sharks back in 2013-14, Los Angeles entered Game 4 with a 53.2 Corsi for percentage through the first three games and, while not favorable, a more balanced rate of scoring chances and shots for at 5-on-5. But the Golden Knights haven’t left the door open for the Kings in the same way the Sharks did. There’s no possession rate or scoring chance edge or even single dominant line that even so much as hints Los Angeles can force their way back into the series.

And that’s because of the excellence, the dominance, that the Golden Knights have displayed. As such, Vegas has been able to earn themselves another piece of history in an already historic season. They’re now added to their lore by becoming one of only three franchises in the NHL’s existence to win their first three playoff games. They’re the first team to do so in their inaugural season, and a series sweep would make them the first team to sweep a round in the same season they debuted. But there’s been no luck to it. Vegas has earned every victory, and the Golden Knights be more playoff ready than anyone could have imagined.

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