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Why nothing about the Vegas Golden Knights’ success is a mirage

The Golden Knights sit atop the NHL following Sunday's victory, and there's no reason to view Vegas as anything other than a true Stanley Cup contender.

No, your eyes don’t deceive you as you check in on the standings on a sleepy Monday afternoon. And no, there’s no need to check them again after you finish up that first or even second cup of coffee. The Vegas Golden Knights — the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, the same team many gave better odds at a top-three pick than a playoff spot — are the NHL’s top team with the stretch run of the 2017-18 campaign on the horizon.

On Sunday evening in Carolina, the Golden Knights skated out against the Hurricanes with an opportunity to surpass the Tampa Bay Lightning for first place in the league. And after three goals in the first period chased Carolina netminder Scott Darling, it was all but inevitable. When the horn sounded after 60 minutes, the Golden Knights were the NHL’s top team, even in games played with the Lightning at 46 apiece but holding a one-point edge, 66 points to Tampa Bay’s 65, to sit atop the league.

To say such a scenario, especially at this point in the season, was unexpected would be an understatement. At best, Vegas was viewed ahead of the season as a wild-card contender entering the campaign, a team that could use its spare-parts construction to eke out enough wins to stay above .500 and sit on the playoff bubble. First place in the NHL as the all-star break approaches, though? No way. Not a chance. Yet, here we are.

Here’s the thing, though: we’ve seen unexpected regular season leaders pop up in recent years. Take the 2013-14 Colorado Avalanche, who, under then-first-year coach Patrick Roy, won 52 games, paced the Central Division and legitimately flirted with winning the Presidents’ Trophy, finishing a mere five points back of the Boston Bruins for the league’s top point total. To compare those Avalanche to these Golden Knights, however, would only be apt in that the success in the standings is similar in its unexpectedness. That is to say Colorado was in the midst of a three-year playoff drought and had finished second-last in the lockout-shortened campaign before their run, while Vegas’ expansion status — and the rich history of failure by first-year NHL organizations — didn’t inspire much hope. That’s where the comparisons of the two teams begins and ends, though.

The aforementioned Avalanche group, despite their success in the standings, were seen by some as no more than a paper tiger. Despite their division and near-league-leading point total, Colorado was full of holes and had managed to outrun unsightly underlying numbers en route to their wondrous season. And, as some had predicted, the whole house of cards collapsed in the playoffs. The No. 2 seed Avalanche were ousted in seven games in the first round by the seventh-seeded Minnesota Wild. But unlike Colorado’s 2013-14 campaign, nothing about Vegas’ success appears to be a mirage.

On a roster-wide statistical basis, such a case would be easy enough to make. Jonathan Marchessault is scoring at more than a point-per-game pace, William Karlsson is staring down a 40-goal season, David Perron has been the perfect fit for the offense and James Neal, Reilly Smith and Erik Haula have supplemented the offense with 30-plus point campaigns. Meanwhile, the defense has been solid, led by castoffs such as Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore, Brayden McNabb and Colin Miller. Even the goaltending, amidst a stretch of injuries that would have cratered other clubs, has held up, with the returning Marc-Andre Fleury – who leads the league in save percentage and goals-against average – outside true Vezina Trophy contention only because he’s played a mere 16 games this season. Top to bottom, the roster has performed at its peak, and coach Gerard Gallant has pulled all the right strings as Vegas boasts the third-best goal for total, sixth-best goals against total and a league-leading 29 regulation or overtime victories.

But it’s the underlying numbers that transform a first-place Golden Knights team from a potential pretender in an honest-to-goodness contender, because a dissection of Vegas’ on-ice success provides enough evidence that Gallant’s bunch can lay claim to being the all-around best in the West. 

Adjusted for score and venue at 5-on-5, the Golden Knights have the sixth-best Corsi for percentage in the league, 52.3 percent, with the Dallas Stars (52.8) and Chicago Blackhawks (53.4) the only Western teams with a better possession rate. In terms of shots on goal, however, Vegas sits atop the entire conference and fourth in the league, boasting a rate of 53 percent. The Golden Knights have also been brilliant in generating and outpacing opponents in the scoring chance department, with their 53.8 percent mark the best in the West and third in the NHL. The biggest slide for Vegas comes in high-danger chances, where they rank 10th in the league at 53.2 percent and sit behind four conference rivals: the Stars, Winnipeg Jets, Calgary Flames and Minnesota Wild. But according to Corsica, the overall play of the Golden Knights at 5-on-5 gives Vegas the sixth-best expected goals for percentage in the league at 52.8 percent. The only Western playoff team with a better expected goals for percentage is the Stars.

There’s nothing there to indicate that any of the Golden Knights’ success is luck, nothing to suggest that Vegas is waiting for some grand collapse that will see them plummet down the standings. Matter of fact, everything about these Golden Knights — the breakout success of their scooped up stars, the steady play on the blueline, puck-stopping savvy of Fleury and top-tier advanced metrics — says exactly the opposite: Vegas is a Stanley Cup contender, and a true Stanley Cup contender, at that.

(All advanced stats via Natural Stat Trick, unless otherwise noted.)

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