On paper, the Pacific Division has all the appearance of a two-team race. Entering Monday’s action, the division-leading Calgary Flames sit three points clear of the second-place San Jose Sharks. And as the two teams, who have fought tooth and nail for first place in the Pacific for much of the season, continue to battle down the stretch, chances are that one of the two will end up the odds-on favorite to emerge from the division and fight for the right to be crowned Western Conference champions.
A word to the wise, however? Don’t make the same mistake as last year and go sleeping on the Vegas Golden Knights.
While that might seem a no-brainer — who is going to overlook the defending conference champions? — it’s undoubtedly worth saying if for no other reason that by the same on-paper measures, the Golden Knights wouldn’t appear to be in the same conversation as the Flames and Sharks. Vegas trails San Jose by nine points and are a dozen separate Calgary from the sophomore squad, and the gap is enough that after winning the division’s regular season crown last season, there’s little chance the Golden Knights will have home-ice advantage come the opening round.
What the standings don’t say about Vegas, though, is that this team is arguably playing the best hockey in its brief existence, which is saying something given its run to the Stanley Cup final last season.
Forget for a second the depth the Golden Knights boast, the top two lines they have at their disposal or the puck-moving defenders who continue to help guide Vegas’ up-tempo game. Instead, consider for a moment the Golden Knights’ underlying numbers. Last season, when Vegas burst onto the scene and shocked the hockey world, coach Gerard Gallant’s group was a dominant possession team that won with fast-paced, north-south hockey. And little about that has changed. If anything, the additions the Golden Knights have made have only helped Gallant’s system, and the underlying numbers paint a picture of a far more dominant team.
Comparing Vegas’ 5-on-5 per 60 minute rates from last season to this season, the Golden Knights have seen an increase in shot attempts (4.4) and decrease in shot attempts against (minus-3.6). Likewise, there’s been a rise in shots for (2.2) and decrease in those against (minus-1.5). Similar rises and drops also exist in scoring chance and high-danger chance rates, both for and against. And the result is a Vegas team that ranks third in the NHL in Corsi percentage (54.3) and shot percentage (53.9), as well as first in scoring chance percentage (55.1) and high-danger scoring chance percentage (56.3). And the Golden Knights’ massive deadline addition has only helped boost those numbers even further.
Really, not enough can be said about the immediate dividends Mark Stone has paid in Vegas post-deadline. Landing the top target at the deadline was a considerable win for the Golden Knights, but his fit since arriving has turned an A-plus move into the equivalent of a professor throwing a few bonus percentage points Vegas’ way. Though Stone hasn’t really dented the scoresheet since his arrival — he has just one assist in four games — it’s the outright on-ice dominance he’s shown while skating on a line centered by free agent acquisition Paul Stastny and on the opposite wing of off-season trade pickup Max Pacioretty that should be turning heads.
Together, the line has arguably been the most dominant in the NHL over the past week, if not on the scoreboard then in terms of driving possession, and there's an argument that newfound line might be one of the best top-six units in the league. Truly, the numbers are comparable to a game of keep away. In roughly an hour of ice time together at 5-on-5, the trio of Stone, Pacioretty and Stastny has driven play to the tune of a 61.6 Corsi percentage, 66.7 shots percentage, 56.4 scoring chance percentage, 72.7 high-danger chance percentage and, the capper, a 100 percent goals percentage, as the unit has been on-ice or three goals for and not a single marker against in nearly an hour of five-a-side ice time in the past four games.
The post-deadline results have been there, too. The Golden Knights have yet to drop a game post-deadline, and their Sunday outing against the Vancouver Canucks is among the most convincing victories Vegas has pieced together all season. In a one-sided affair, the Golden Knights outshot the Canucks 48-19 and skated to a 3-0 victory, highlighted by the second of what has been back-to-back shutouts for Marc-Andre Fleury.
It’s Fleury, too, who might be the very reason why Vegas has potential to flip the Pacific on its ear and oust one or both of its top teams en route to a second trip to the conference final. You see, the fact of the matter is that while the Golden Knights boast tremendous underlying metrics, the Flames and Sharks do, as well. All three are arguably among the five-best possession teams in the league, controlling play on a near nightly basis. But while Fleury hasn’t necessarily been his best self this season — his save percentage has declined by 16 points, his goals-against average risen by nearly one-third of a marker — no netminder has slammed the door shut as often. Fleury’s eight shutouts are the league’s top mark, and it’s one indication that the veteran can still steal a game.
True, any goaltender at any time is capable of stealing a contest, but entering the post-season, which netminder would you most like to have at your disposal? Throughout the season, the Flames have trotted out veteran Mike Smith and youngster David Rittich, the latter first stealing and then again losing the top job to the former. Meanwhile, the Sharks’ goaltending appears to be its Achilles heel. An otherwise formidable club, San Jose has gotten a mere .897 SP to date out of Martin Jones, which does little to inspire confidence. The Golden Knights, however, have a three-time Stanley Cup champion and a keeper who posted a .927 SP and four shutouts in 20 playoff games last spring.
None of this is to mention, either, that Vegas’ luck could turn at any moment. For as much as the Golden Knights have tilted the ice, they’ve had relatively poor shooting success, and it would seem likely that that’s going to correct itself at one point or another. Given Vegas’ possession game, if that change in fortune occurs during the post-season, the red light might end up giving opposing netminders a sunburn.
None of that will change the fact that the Golden Knights aren’t about to enter the playoffs as Pacific Division frontrunners, though. And you can rest assured that that’s quite all right in Vegas. After all, if we’ve learned anything about the Golden Knights in their short stay in the NHL, it’s that this team has been at its best when they’re the underdog, and that���s likely exactly what they’ll be come the opening round of the post-season.