Fifteen teams awoke this morning with the deflating knowledge that for them, the 2017-18 campaign was over. Despite surviving the war of attrition that is the NHL’s 82-game regular season, they had not earned the right to play for Lord Stanley’s cup this year.
Every expansion team in the modern era (for argument’s sake we’re going to call the modern era of the NHL the 1991-92 season) have found themselves among those waking to this realization during their inaugural season.
Every expansion team except for the Vegas Golden Knights, that is.
The San Jose Sharks, Ottawa Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, Anaheim Ducks, Nashville Predators, Atlanta Thrashers, Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild have all seen their inaugural seasons open and close without making it to the postseason. The Panthers came closest when they finished with 83 points in 1993-94, which placed them just a single point behind the New York Islanders for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Golden Knights, though, have accomplished which none before them have been able to.
And it started, more or less, with the hiring of George McPhee, which soon after led to the hiring of Gerard Gallant and building the rest of the front office and coaching staff.
Then the expansion draft. The entry draft. Free agency. The trade deadline.
From swindling opposing general managers in the expansion draft to overpaying the Detroit Red Wings for an overpaid winger. From accepting the gift of a three-time Stanley Cup winning goalie to claiming a former first-round goalie off waivers when some wondered if he was a bust. Ryan Carpenter to Ryan Reaves. All of it.
And every moment of this ridiculous season has led to this somehow even more ridiculous moment.
Now here we are. The playoffs. The promised land. As in the “promised in the near future but definitely not year-one” land. The land of heroes. Where players don’t get paid to play the games but earn millions of dollars on their next contract based on how well they perform. Where history is made. Where legends write their stories.
Before any of that can happen, however, the Golden Knights must find a way to defeat their first-round opponent.
Say hello to the Los Angeles Kings.
The Kings (45-29-8) finished the season with 98 points, earning the second wildcard slot in the Western Conference. Their reward; a first-round date with the Golden Knights.
Sort of feels like the kind of series where both teams, no matter who wins, will be wishing they’d swiped left on this first-round matchup.
While the Golden Knights have every reason to enter the playoffs with all the confidence in the world, they split the season series two games apiece with the Kings who held the edge in scoring 11-10. With that said, Vegas dominated in possession with a 55.59 Corsi For percentage (5v5) in their four contests.
It should also be mentioned the two L.A victories came during their February home-and-home series following the trade deadline. As you may recall, the club had just made a series of moves at the trade deadline and were still trying to figure out their identity as a team after inserting veteran face-puncher-and-world-renowned-pest Ryan Reaves and speedy offensive weapon Tomas Tatar into the lineup and system.
Both of whom would play their first games as a Golden Knight in that same home-and-home.
The club was also without defenseman Shea Theodore, who had been placed on injured reserve with an illness while James Neal missed the second game due to injury.
None of this is to make excuses for the Golden Knights. Every team has injuries or players to work in, but it is important context to factor in before the start of the series.
Of all the potential first-round matchups the Golden Knights could have had coming out of the last weekend of the season, this is likely the toughest.
How do the Knights stack up?
Leading the charge for the Golden Knights, as they often do, was the top line of Reilly Smith, William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault. Smith scored just a single goal but added five assists in four games against the Kings to lead all Knights scorers in points. Unsurprisingly, Karlsson led the line (and team) in goals with three while adding an assist of his own. And not to be outdone, Marchessault rounded out the top line with a goal and two assists of his own.
It wasn’t all the top line contributing on the scoresheet. Cody Eakin added a goal and two assists while Alex Tuch contributed a pair of points (a goal and assist) to the Golden Knights’ cause.
Between the pipes for the Golden Knights, barring injury, will likely be Marc-Andre Fleury and while the regular season is far from predictive of what will happen in a seven-game playoff series, the Knights should have all the confidence in the world with their franchise goalie. Especially against the Kings.
Fleury, who played in just two of the four contests, put up a spectacular .931 save percentage saving 67 of the 72 shots he faced. He also had a 2.37 goals against average against the Kings this season.
How do the Kings stack up?
Earlier I spoke about context and I would be remiss if I didn’t also remind people that the two Vegas wins came in games where the Kings did not have Jeff Carter in the lineup.
Carter missed four months of the season after undergoing surgery following Montreal Canadiens defenceman Jeff Petry’s skate cutting his lower leg on October 18.
Would that have mattered to the games earlier in the season? I don’t know. However, in the two games Carter did play against the Golden Knights, both were wins for the Kings. He had two goals.
Beyond Carter, it was the usual suspects at the head of the Kings offensive attack against the Golden Knights. Norris Trophy winning defenseman Drew Doughty scored a goal and added three assists while playing over 25 minutes a night on the blue line for the Kings, while Hart Trophy candidate Anze Kopitar had two goals and three assists, all coming in the final two games of the season series.
The presumptive starting goaltender for the Kings is Jonathan Quick and while he has had a strong season to date, posting a .924 SV% and 2.34 GAA in 62 games this season, his numbers plummeted when facing the leagues fourth highest scoring offense. With just a .908 SV% and 3.51 GAA, Quick has allowed eight goals in his three starts, finishing with a 1-1-1 record. His play against the Knights leaves something to be desired for the team in black and white.
When people talk about playoff hockey, this is the kind of series they have in the mind. Two teams who clearly do not like one another that play a tough, physical game every time they meet where anything can happen. It’s going to be a war. Very few first-round matchups have ever been as intense as this is set to be. A clash between the old guard and those who would wish to become the new one.
So, in the face of such a series there is only one thing left to say.