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It might be time to talk about the Golden Knights as Stanley Cup contenders

The Golden Knights were expected to fight for draft lottery positioning. Instead, Vegas is sitting atop the Western Conference as the holiday break draws near. But are they really Stanley Cup contenders?

Three games into the season, the Golden Knights were a fun story. When Vegas set the mark for fastest franchise to register its ninth win, it seemed to be not much more than one of those odd bits of trivia. And when goalies Marc-Andre Fleury, Malcolm Subban and Oscar Dansk went down with injury, it felt as though the hockey world was simply waiting for the other shoe to drop on the Golden Knights’ season.

Yet, here we are, 33 games into the season and Vegas continues to surprise. And their most recent feat is quite possibly their most impressive and, honestly, most improbable victory of the season. Trailing the league-leading and at-times seemingly unstoppable Tampa Bay Lightning 2-0 after 20 minutes on Tuesday, Vegas proceeded to rip off three straight goals — first from James Neal, then Jonathan Marchessault and Erik Haula — before it was drawn even once again by Bolts defender Victor Hedman. But Hedman’s goal only added to the drama, with Golden Knights defender Shea Theodore scoring the winner in the dying seconds, a blast from the top of the circle that found twine with 2.9 seconds left.

The significance of Theodore’s bomb isn’t just that it allowed the Golden Knights to complete the comeback in a game which they trailed after the first frame. No, it’s that Theodore’s game-winning goal propelled Vegas to a place few ever believed this team could be with the holiday break mere days away: atop the Pacific Division and sitting in first place in the entire Western Conference. And now, more than ever, it might be time to wonder if the Golden Knights are actual, honest-to-goodness Stanley Cup contenders in a year where most expected them to have top odds at a lottery pick.

A cursory look at the standings, of course, would suggest nothing less than Stanley Cup hopes for the Golden Knights. That’s particularly true when you consider the company Vegas is keeping atop both the division and conference. The Los Angeles Kings, the Golden Knights’ top competition for the divisional crown, are having a resurgence that has unquestionably put them into the title picture. That’s not to mention the Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues, Winnipeg Jets, Chicago Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild and Dallas Stars, all Central Division teams within striking distance of top spot in the conference, were all considered contenders of varying degrees.

Accumulating points and establishing yourself as an actual championship threat, however, aren’t one and the same. Reach back into your memory and consider the 2013-14 Colorado Avalanche. One of the league’s great surprises that season, the Avalanche finished with the third-best record in the league and home-ice advantage in the first round, yet it was fair to consider them an underdog given that most underlying metrics pointed to a team that was winning close games on goaltending and favorable bounces. Sure enough, Colorado was one-and-done in the post-season, losing in seven games to the seventh-seeded Minnesota Wild. These Golden Knights are nowhere near the paper tiger those Avalanche were, though.

Consider first the underlying numbers this team boasts. At 5-on-5 under coach Gerard Gallant, Vegas ranks 13th in the league in shot attempts for percentage (50.3), ninth in scoring chances for percentage (52.3), 12th in high-danger attempts for percentage (51.9) and boast a combined shooting and save percentage of 100.4 through 33 games. Such a number doesn’t suggest any precipitous rise or drop in the level of play we’ve seen across the board from the Golden Knights. And when those numbers are adjusted for score and venue to lessen any variation that could be seen from home scoring or score effects, Vegas ranks much the same — 13th, sixth and 11th in the respective categories. They’re firmly in the top half of the league.

As we’ve seen with numerous teams in the advanced stats era, though, strong underlying numbers don’t always correlate to winning, either. There’s a certain level of finishing ability and goaltending consistency necessary to contend. When it comes to the latter, the Golden Knights are absolutely getting solid play between the pipes. Fleury has a 5-1-1 record, .932 save percentage and 2.25 goals-against average in the seven games he’s been healthy enough to play. Backup Subban has also pulled his weight, with a .922 SP and 2.30 GAA in 11 appearances. And while throwing Dansk or Maxime Lagace in goal isn’t ideal, Vegas knows winning is possible with either netminder. As for the former, the offensive ability of this group, it’s unquestionably greater than most expected. 

The Golden Knights have their obvious offensive leaders, the players who, post-expansion draft, most assumed would be among the team's top scorers. James Neal has 17 goals and 27 points. David Perron has seven goals and 27 points. Reilly Smith has contributed nine goals and 25 points. And the breakout star has been William Karlsson, whose 15 goals and 27 points have him on pace to more than double his career point total. Leading the way, however, has been Jonathan Marchessault. One of last season’s great stories, Marchessault was a journeyman who found his way from fourth-line contributor in Tampa Bay to top-line scorer with the Florida Panthers. His 30 goals and 51 points made for a brilliant performance last season, and when Vegas landed the 26-year-old, the hope was he could repeat the feat. His 12 goals and 31 points in 30 games, which puts him on pace for 32 goals and 82 points this season, have proven he’s much more than a flash in the pan.

In the coming days, weeks and months, the Golden Knights will have the opportunity to improve their chances, too. Vegas can explore the trade market and potentially fill gaps and holes in their lineup if GM George McPhee can come to terms with parting ways with a prospect here or future there. But even if he stands pat and holds true to the idea of building for the long term, the Golden Knights have thus far earned the right to be called contenders.

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