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Golden Knights NHL 20 Franchise Mode, Season 1: An improbable run

What was supposed to be an inaugural two-season simulation turned into a one-season run-through that saw the Vegas Golden Knights fall short of reaching the Stanley Cup Final.

Not only did the Golden Knights come close, they did so as the second wild card in the Western Conference — the equivalent of the No. 8 seed in the West.

Yes, all of this sounds very weird, but not in the realm of NHL 20 where weirdness and aggravation go hand-in-hand.

We’re taking the Golden Knights in NHL 20’s franchise mode with the hope of turning them into a dynasty. Since we can’t use Kelly McCrimmon or George McPhee, we created our own. Your new GM of the Golden Knights is Big Mac.

Wipe everything you know of the current Golden Knights out of your mind. Who should and shouldn’t be in AHL Chicago is not worth debating. Who should or shouldn’t be on the third or fourth lines is not up for discussion; although hoping for better ratings for defensemen would help.

Some rules before we dive in to what happened. And there was a lot that happened:

  • For Year 1, no trades for either the Golden Knights or the AI.
  • Fog of War, the game’s feature that doesn’t reveal player ratings, is going to be on for the entirety of the series. We could draft a high-potential player that could be a 50 overall and years away from being on the main roster.
  • Owner Mode stays off because I don’t want to worry about getting fired at any point./

Easy enough, right? Let’s get you caught up.

Regular Season

Record: 43-35-4

Place: Fourth in Pacific Division

Playoffs: Second wild card

We enter with no preconceived ideas. Trying to make reality into a video game is near impossible. In the case of the Golden Knights, this was unavoidable.

Vegas ended October at 5-7-2, much like the realistic slow start in real life. Injuries piled up along the way; Mark Stone missed a few weeks with an upper-body injury, Max Pacioretty missed time, and Cody Glass played his real-life counterpart by missing a month with an MCL sprain.

That all pales in comparison to losing Shea Theodore for the season with a herniated disc. He wasn’t the Golden Knights’ top point blue liner (Nate Schmidt would earn that distinction), but he was on Vegas’ top pair. The likes of Jimmy Schuldt, Deryk Engelland and Nicolas Hague would have to produce along the way.

Robin Lehner missed the final month of the regular season with a broken finger. If the Golden Knights were going to make the playoffs, Marc-Andre Fleury would carry the load. In real life, that’s fine. In virtual reality, there was no clear-cut No. 1 for Game 1 of a playoff series should Vegas get there; Lehner hovered around a .900 save percentage with a GAA of at least 2.60, while Fleury also hovered around .900 but a 2.85 GAA. By this point, Vegas is 36-31-4 and has lost three of four.

The Golden Knights went 6-3-0 in their next nine. At 88 points, Vegas was two points clear of the Calgary Flames, its next opponent. The defending champion Blues were also at 88 points and trailed the Nashville Predators by two points for a wild card spot. Vegas won 4-2, and the Blues also lost, ensuring a playoff spot. A 6-5 loss to Vancouver in the final game ended any hopes of avoiding the Dallas Stars in the first round. Nevertheless, three years up, three years down for the Golden Knights in the playoffs.

Round 1 – Dallas Stars

The theme of this postseason, by hook or crook, was injury luck. The top-seeded Stars would be without captain Jamie Benn and, for at least a few games, top-line forward Alexander Radulov.

Vegas took advantage of the good fortune early, winning 5-2 in Game 1 and 3-2 in Game 2 to take a stunning 2-0 series lead. The Golden Knights answered with a 6-2 win in Game 3. The brooms were prepared.

Forget injuries; it’s still an 8-seed winning the first three against the top team in the Western Conference. Video games are weird.

But just when things went well, the Stars’ offense, and Ben Bishop, shut the Golden Knights down. Vegas scored three total goals in the following three games, as Dallas forced a Game 7. The Stars won 2-1 in Game 4, exploded for five goals in the first in Game 5 for a 6-1 triumph, and a 4-1 win in Game 6. Fleury turned into a pumpkin, forcing Vegas to roll with Lehner in Game 7.

Alex Tuch was moved to the second line in hopes of igniting a spark offensively. Tuch, who finished a shade under 50 points in the regular season, was a catalyst on the third line. He got his chance in Game 7 and delivered with two third-period goals, giving the Golden Knights a 4-1 win to advance to Round 2.

The Pacific Division champion San Jose Sharks lost in Game 7 to the Nashville Predators, and the Presidents Trophy-winning Florida Panthers were swept in the first round by the Pittsburgh Penguins. Video games are indeed a trip.

Round 2 – Minnesota Wild

Against a team that has been a thorn in the Golden Knights’ side before, more injury luck would pull in Vegas’ favor. Vegas took on a Minnesota team without leading scorer Kevin Fiala and Eric Staal. The Wild disposed of the Chicago Blackhawks in seven games to reach this point.

Lehner remained the starter going into this series. That choice was tested early. Vegas trailed twice in the third; Pacioretty tied it 3-3, and Jonathan Marchessault tied it 4-4 midway through the third. But a power play goal from Paul Stastny with 33 seconds to go gave the Golden Knights a shocking 5-4 win in Game 1.

Stone scored a goal, but it was revealed after the sim that he had been playing with a fractured jaw since Game 6 of the Dallas series. How that’s deemed a playable injury remains unknown, but that part of the decision to move Stone to the third line, while Tuch got his top-six promotion. Alas, fractured jaw and all, Stone scored a minute into overtime in Game 2 for a 2-1 win and a 2-0 series lead.

What are video games but a weird social construct.

Minnesota answered with a commanding 5-1 win in Game 3. Lehner was pulled but got the start in Game 4 and played well for 50 minutes. Ryan Donato scored two power-play goals in the third, but Vegas held on for a 4-3 win and a 3-1 series lead.

Games 5 and 6 were telling factors for Lehner. He did what he could against Dallas, but the magic ran out; the Golden Knights lost 2-0 in Game 5, as Lehner saw only 19 shots. In Game 6, Minnesota took a 2-1 lead into the intermission. Lehner saw THREE shots in the first 20 minutes. Minnesota scored two more in the second to cruise to a 6-2 win and force another Vegas Game 7.

In comes Fleury.

Trading for Lehner led to these moments. If one goalie fails, throw the other in. Fleury stood tall in the first 30 minutes before Zach Parise scored the game’s opening goal. With the season in the balance, two of the unlikeliest heroes step up.

On to the Western Conference Final. Just like that.

Western Conference Final – Edmonton Oilers

The fact we’re getting excited over a sim is ridiculous, but when you’re in this position, it changes the future outlook.

The top two teams in the Pacific in real life meet for the chance to play in the Stanley Cup Final. On the other side, the Carolina Hurricanes have a matchup with the No. 8-seed Pittsburgh Penguins.

Narrative has knocked on the door and has given us a possible Vegas-Pittsburgh final.

No injuries for Edmonton. Full strength of Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid for this matchup. But injuries of their own finally caught up to the Golden Knights.

Vegas’ road dominance continued but not before some excitement. Brandon Pirri not only scored the tying goal in the third, but it was shorthanded and from center ice. That is not a lie.

Pacioretty scored just under two minutes later in what would be the winning goal, a 5-4 Vegas victory. The triumph wouldn’t last long; Stone injured his shoulder and would miss one week. Edmonton responded with a 4-0 win in Game 2.

The Oilers won 4-2 in Game 3, and the Golden Knights trailed a series for the first time. Again, not the worst loss — William Karlsson hurt his leg and would miss Game 4 and had to be held out of Game 5 for fear of losing him long term. Lucas Elvenes got the call up. Schmidt scored the winning goal with 2:19 left in Game 4 for a 2-1 win, tying the series 2-2.

Should Karlsson have played Game 5? He could have. Was it the right move to hold him out? I still don’t know. But Alex Chiasson scored the winning goal with 4:19 left to give the Oilers a 3-2 win. We just won’t know, but only ask what could have been. But with Karlsson’s return to the lineup, Fleury made 23 saves and Vegas shut out Edmonton 4-0 to force, yet again, another Game 7.

And then …

The Golden Knights ran out of gas. They tied it 2-2 after two periods, but Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scored consecutive goals in the third. The Oilers outshot Vegas 16-4 in the third period, putting a dagger into this wacky season.

Season 1 in the books, when this stream was supposed to feature two seasons at least. But somehow, the Golden Knights got to the playoffs as the eight seed, won two Game Sevens (albeit against banged up teams), made the conference final and went blow-for-blow against a stacked Edmonton team, but just couldn’t get over the hump. The Bunch of Jerks won the Cup in a four-game sweep against Edmonton.

If you’d like to watch the stream in full, unfortunately the first hour or so was cut out because my microphone wasn’t working. So we pick up from Game 6 against Dallas and go from there. It’s a full-on sim so I’m not playing the game, but I will play in future instances that are deemed appropriate.

Next stream is Wednesday, where we take the Golden Knights into the offseason and through Season 2 with a chance to get further than we did this year. Hope you join the fun.