With the Golden Knights off to a record start for NHL expansion teams, the question is whether or not Vegas can become the first expansion team since the league doubled in size back in 1967-68 to make the playoffs.
Seemingly all the Golden Knights have done this season is defy expectations and set records. Three games into the campaign, Vegas made NHL expansion history by boasting a perfect record. Later, the Golden Knights became the first team ever to win eight of its first nine games in franchise history. And earlier this week, Vegas’ ragtag group added another mark to the growing list of feats.
On Tuesday night in Anaheim, the Golden Knights defeated the Ducks 4-2 to take over top spot in the Pacific Division. That, in and of itself, is incredibly impressive. But the more notable feat, and the one that has potential to stand the test of time, is that the victory marked Vegas’ 13th win in its opening 20 games. Not since the 1917-18 Montreal Canadiens won 13 of their first 20 games has a franchise managed to win as many games out of the gate in their inaugural season.
The thing is, too, that the Golden Knights somehow aren’t showing any signs of slowing down. After losing three straight from late October into early November, the thought was Vegas could be heading towards a slide. Instead, the Golden Knights have won five of their past eight games, including three straight victories over divisional opponents. That includes a 5-2 win over the Vancouver Canucks and twin 4-2 victories over the Ducks and Los Angeles Kings.
Vegas’ continued success is an absolute head-scratcher, too. The Golden Knights took a massive blow early in the campaign, losing Marc-Andre Fleury, Malcolm Subban and Oscar Dansk, the organization’s first-, second- and third-string goaltenders, to successive injuries. While Vegas’ infirmary filled up with masked men, though, the Golden Knights were somehow able to insulate fourth-stringer Maxime Lagace enough to continue to pick up wins. Now having started 11 straight games — over which time he’s 5-5-1 — Lagace almost seems as though he’s starting to get a feel for the NHL. Over his past three games, he’s posted a .913 save percentage. If you remove the 8-2 thumping at the hands of the Edmonton Oilers, Lagace has posted a .918 SP over four of his past five starts.
It helps, of course, when the attack is rolling like it is. Only five times in 20 games have the Golden Knights been held to two or fewer goals and the pieced-together roster has actually managed to blast home 72 goals across the first quarter of the season. At 3.6 goals per game, Vegas has the third-best attack in the league, a middle-of-the-pack power play and are an average team when it comes to generating shots. Many of those expected to lead the way are doing just that for the Golden Knights, too.
James Neal, for instance, has 11 goals through 20 games and sits third on the team with 17 points. David Perron is likewise having an impressive season, scoring at a near-point-per-game rate with six goals and 19 points. Meanwhile, William Karlsson has been a revelation with 10 goals and 18 points as the team’s top-line pivot, while two of the high-scoring acquisitions from the Florida Panthers, Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault, have continued to produce under former Cats coach Gerard Gallant. Smith’s six goals and 17 points have him on pace to reach new heights, whereas Marchessault, last season’s top breakout scorer, is heading for another near 30-goal campaign.
With the Golden Knights performing as they have, though, the biggest question is whether or not Vegas can become the first expansion team since the league doubled in size back in 1967-68 to make the playoffs. And considering their start, it sure seems as though that’s more than just a possibility as the post-expansion era has been kind to teams who’ve started as strong as the Golden Knights. Since the start of the 2005-06 season, there are 74 teams that have had at least 27 points across their first 20 games and the percentage of those clubs that have made the post-season is convincing.
While the jury is still out on the five teams who’ve reached at least 27 points through 20 games this year — which includes Vegas, New Jersey, Winnipeg, St. Louis and Tampa Bay — the previous 69 teams to reach the mark through 20 games earned a combined 62 playoff berths. Some quick math tells us, then, that 89.9 percent of the organizations to reach at least 27 points in their first 20 games have made the post-season in the post-lockout NHL. Now, that said, teams who’ve managed 27 points on the nose have, as one would imagine, the greatest rate of post-season misses. All told, 24 teams, including three this season, started the campaign with exactly 27 points in 20 games. Four of those teams, 19 percent, missed the post-season. However, an equal number have also made the conference final, with three Stanley Cup-winning teams — the 2016-17 and 2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins and 2013-14 Los Angeles Kings — at 27 points following Game 20.
A few other numbers tend to point in the direction of the playoffs for Vegas, too. Only one team in the post-lockout era has scored more goals in its first 20 games and failed to make the playoffs, the 2005-06 Los Angeles Kings. Meanwhile, four of the teams who have missed out on the post-season were worse defensively: Vegas’ 608 shots against are fewer than the 2010-11 Columbus Blue Jackets, 2011-12 Minnesota Wild, 2006-07 Montreal Canadiens and 2013-14 Phoenix Coyotes. And while the Golden Knights’ 60 goals against in 20 games could be cause for concern, eight of the nine teams to allow more goals against through 20 outings have made the post-season and Vegas’ crease should only get stronger once Subban and Fleury are healthy.
So, the playoffs for the Golden Knights? Statistically speaking, it’s more probable than one might have expected. And with a hot start in a division that seems to be up for grabs, Vegas could add another piece of history by season’s end as the first expansion team in the modern era to make the playoffs in their inaugural campaign.
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