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How the Golden Knights went from early struggles to one of West’s best

Vegas looked like they were about to suffer from a full-scale sophomore slump, but continued attention to detail and belief in the underlying processes has turned the Golden Knights from slow starters into a club to watch in the second half.

It looked as though it was going to be the most widespread case of the sophomore slump in NHL history.

On the heels of a storybook run to the Stanley Cup final, one that made the Golden Knights the talk of the sporting world, Vegas stumbled out of the gate and had fallen absolutely flat and were mired in the Western Conference basement, only four points ahead of the last-place Los Angeles Kings and tied with the disappointing St. Louis Blues. It appeared the Golden Knights were destined for the penthouse to outhouse slide, the long-awaited crash back to earth that most suspected would befall the league’s newest club at some point during their inaugural campaign.

But after a debut season in which they burned the script that expansion teams tend to follow, the Golden Knights are doing their best to dispel with another age-old axiom. After a tough start possibly spurred on by some second-year jitters, Vegas finds themselves striving after stringing together one of the best second quarters in the NHL and the worrisome start has become nothing but a distant memory.

As they wake up Wednesday, on the heels of a 2-0 victory over the Kings, the Golden Knights do so tied for top spot in the Pacific Division and in lockstep with the Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames for first place in the Western Conference. Vegas has won four in a row, has picked up points in each of its past seven and have a mere three regulation losses in their past 20 games. Offensively, the Golden Knights have boasted one of the league’s most potent attacks since the final week of November, and defensively, very few have been better.

So, what’s been behind the almost overnight turnaround?

Through the early part of the campaign, despite boasting some of the best underlying stats in the NHL, the Golden Knights simply weren’t being rewarded. Case in point, through their first 20 games, Vegas ranked top-five in possession metrics such as Corsi, shots for, scoring chances and high-danger chances, but had the league’s seventh-worst shooting percentage at a mere 7.42 percent at five-a-side. While some may have taken the struggles and made a rash decision to shuffle the deck in some way, shape or form, the Golden Knights put trust in the process and it’s brought with it results. Across the past 20 games, Vegas’ shooting percentage has been a full percentage point better, which has resulted in an increase at 5-on-5 of more than three-quarters of a goal per 60 minutes.

The power play has really started to come around for the Golden Knights, too. After struggling to the tune of a 16.7 clip with the man advantage through the first quarter campaign, Vegas’ extra-man woes have subsided. In fact, they’ve been one of the league’s most proficient power play squads since the end of the first quarter. At 25.8 percent since Nov. 17, only six teams boast a better power play over that span.

Some of the increase in production has been helped along by some notable returns. Paul Stastny’s return to action has brought with it a remarkable level of production, as the veteran pivot has nine points in 10 games since slotting back into the lineup. Nate Schmidt’s return from his controversial 20-game performance enhancing substances ban has been excellent, as well. In 23 games, he has three goals and 14 points and is logging upwards of 22 minutes per outing. He’s back to anchoring the Vegas blueline.

Add to it the red-hot start Brandon Pirri has had since his call up to the big club, six goals and nine points in seven games, and the 15 points Max Pacioretty had in the 16 second-quarter games he had played before he fell injured — he’s been sidelined the past seven games but is due to return soon — and you can see from where the uptick in offense has come.

As much as the additional offense has cleared the path for the Golden Knights to charge up the division and conference standings, though, the level of consistency Marc-Andre Fleury has found over the past several weeks has been especially prominent in Vegas’ rise.

Throughout the first quarter of the campaign, Fleury fluctuated between games in which he stole, his three shutouts highlighting that, or allowed four or more goals. The result through the first 20 games of Vegas’ season was a .901 save percentage, .895 SP at 5-on-5 and 2.60 goals-against average to go along with an 8-8-1 record for Fleury. Since the Golden Knights’ second quarter began, however, Fleury has bordered on unbeatable, extending his league lead with another three shutouts — bringing his total to six — and outstanding totals across the board. Since Nov. 17, Fleury’s .919 SP ranks ninth among the 35 goaltenders with at least 10 games played, his .928 5-on-5 SP ranks 11th among the same group and he has delivered with an unmatched steadiness. His 15 wins since Nov. 17 are four more than the next-best keepers, Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky and Tampa Bay’s Louis Domingue.

And while Fleury has been the undeniable crease leader, starting all but three games over the past six-plus weeks, Malcolm Subban has been likewise improved in his trio of appearances. After an ugly .885 SP through his first four starts, Subban has posted a .904 SP in his past three games, including consecutive starts in which he’s stopped 30 of 31 shots.

All told, though, Vegas’ rapid rise from slumping sophomore squad to conference contender from a second consecutive season is thanks to nothing more than patience. The Golden Knights had remained one of the league’s most fearsome five-a-side teams, able to control play, generate offense and limit chances against. That’s continued through into the second quarter of the campaign, and after early concerns about the whether the regression would hit — and hit hard — in Year Two in Vegas, it appears the Golden Knights could be gearing up for a big second half and another deep run come the post-season.

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