For the second game in a row, the Vegas Golden Knights pulled off a thrilling victory against a quality opponent. Just a couple days after scoring three goals in the final two minutes of regulation to defeat the Calgary Flames, the Golden Knights once again delivered in crunch time, beating the Winnipeg Jets with an exhilarating overtime victory in Manitoba.
What did we learn from the contest? First thing’s first, we need to figure out if Reilly Smith is a human or not.
1. Reilly Smith was an absolute monster
There’s no better way to put it. Smith looked like a man possessed against Winnipeg, playing a major role in shifting the momentum in Vegas’ favor after an up-and-down first period. Early on, he created several quality scoring chances from high-danger areas of the ice, but couldn’t get anything past Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck. It would only be a matter of time before the 26-year-old winger found twine, though. And in typical Reilly Smith fashion, a terrific defensive play (on the penalty kill, mind you) sparked what would be the turning point of the game. With over half of a Jets power play remaining, Smith dished out an open-ice hit on Jets captain Blake Wheeler, stole the puck, raced toward Hellebuyck and beat him with a deadly accurate wrister. One of the more impressive goals we’ve seen from any Golden Knights player all season.
Smith came to play tonight, man. pic.twitter.com/RyJAHw89Tu— Ryan Quigley (@RP_Quigs) February 2, 2018
Smith has been a dominant 200-foot player all season and it only seems like a matter of time before he starts gaining recognition as one of the league’s best two-way forwards. He likely won’t win a Selke (seeing that he’s a winger), but he should at least be in the conversation.
And speaking of good defense...
2. Erik Haula and Jonathan Marchessault saved the game in overtime
The Golden Knights wouldn’t have walked out of Bell MTS Place with a win had it not been for Haula and Marchessault making huge defensive plays in overtime.
With Marc-Andre Fleury out of his goal crease following a mad scramble for the puck, Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey had a wide open net in his sights. After initially looking like a game-winning goal from Morrissey, Haula emerged from the pile of bodies after blocking the shot, which sparked a Nate Schmidt rush in the other direction. Seconds later, Marchessault saved the day again. Again, Fleury was temporarily incapacitated (thanks to a pile of bodies stacked on top of him) as the puck sat unoccupied in the goal crease. With the loose puck slowly inching closer to the goal line, Marchessault came in like a wrecking ball to gain possession and start another rush up ice.
Of course, the rest is history. David Perron scored the game-winner and snapped Winnipeg’s home winning streak at seven games. And it all happened largely thanks to the clutch plays made by Haula and Marchessault in overtime’s most chaotic moments. A full-team effort in crunch time.
3. Golden Knights’ power play is finally coming around
The Golden Knights were awful on the power play for much of January, but it finally looks like their issues on the man advantage have been sorted out. At least for now. Prior to the Golden Knights’ Jan. 21 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes, Vegas failed to convert on its previous 19 power play opportunities. Since then, though, they’ve gone 7-for-13 on the man advantage. Pretty big turnaround! From a personnel standpoint, not much has changed for Vegas’ power play units, but it certainly appears the Golden Knights have been more efficient with their zone entries and creating traffic in front of the net (big shoutout to Haula in that department).
Vegas’ power play will be tested once again Friday night against a solid Minnesota Wild penalty kill. It’ll be interesting to see if they can keep the momentum going.
4. Vegas closing in on Tampa Bay Lightning for the Presidents’ Trophy lead
Something we’ve been following very closely over the last month or so is Vegas’ positioning in the league standings. Only one team in the NHL, the Lightning, has earned more points than the Golden Knights this season. Vegas briefly usurped Tampa Bay in the standings in January, but their reign as the best team in the league (by points) would only last about 24 hours. With a game in hand, though, Vegas can reclaim the top spot in the standings with a win against the Wild Friday night.
5. The Golden Knights are officially the best NHL expansion team ever
I think I speak for just about everyone when I say this, but this is still beyond my comprehension. Prior to the season, the Golden Knights were the odds-on favorite to finish in the cellar of the league standings. But here we are! It’s February and Vegas has already broken the record for most wins by an expansion team in its inaugural season with 34. The 1993-94 Florida Panthers and Mighty Ducks of Anaheim previously held that record with 31 wins in an 84-game regular season, but Vegas is well on its way to completely blowing that record out of the water.
And they still have 32 games left to play.
There may never be an NHL expansion team this good ever again. People can criticize the NHL for making the expansion draft “too easy” all they want, but the things the Golden Knights have accomplished this season, regardless of on-ice talent, is completely unprecedented.