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Recapping the Knights Golden run to the Stanley Cup Final

Guest Writer: Justin Godfrey / Photo by Ember Navarro - Unsplash

While the Florida Panthers have spent the past month plus as a wild card team gone wild, toppling the giants of the Eastern Conference on their path to the Stanley Cup Final, the Vegas Golden Knights have been swatting aside challenges to their throne atop of the Western Conference. For the second time in their brief existence, the Golden Knights have made it to the NHL’s promised land. After wooing the hockey world in their 2018 inaugural season (only to lose to the Washington Capitals), Vegas made it back to the Stanley Cup Final in their sixth season by a more conventional route – by being the best team in the Western Conference.

Convincing wins (4-1 and 3-1) against the Seattle Kraken over the final two games of the regular season allowed the Golden Knights to hold off the charging Edmonton Oilers (who won their final nine regular season games) and claim the top seed in the Western Conference with a 51-22-9 record and 111 points. They matched their franchise best marks in wins while setting a new personal record in points. Not a shabby way to roll through the regular season under their new head coach Bruce Cassidy.

It wasn’t a Boston Bruins-like romp to the title as their 3.26 goals per game was 14th in the league and their points leader, Jack Eichel, finished with 66 (27 goals, 39 assists) in 67 games, which was tied for the 70th best total in the NHL. Only two other Golden Knights cracked the 20-goal mark with former Panthers Jonathan Marchessault (28) and Reilly Smith (26) hitting that mark. Speaking of marks, Mark Stone was limited to just 43 games as he battled injuries, though he was productive when he was in the line-up with 17 goals and 21 assists.

Vegas was slightly better at preventing goals finishing 11th in the league with 2.74 goals against. That mark looks even better considering presumed number one goaltender Robin Lehner missed the entire season and injuries limited his replacement, Logan Thompson, to 37 games. The Golden Knights used five goalies in total throughout the campaign, with all of them finishing above a .900 save percentage for the season.

In essence they were a good team that did a lot of things well, but nothing especially outstanding. There were some indications that they were a team built for the playoffs as they finished in the top five in takeaways per 60 minutes (8.50/60) and had the fifth fewest giveaways per 60 (6.39/60). They did lead the league in blocked shots with 1,494 (for comparison the Panthers had 1,064) while also taking the fewest penalties in the league with just 243.

So they were good enough to finish first in a weakened Western Conference, but how did they survive the topsy-turvy 2023 playoffs to make it to the Final? Let’s take a look.

Round One – The Winnipeg Jets

  • Vegas wins series 4-1

Their reward for a strong season was a chance to open against the Western Conference’s version of the Panthers, the team that squeaked in at the second wild card spot, the Winnipeg Jets. Things did not begin on a rosy note for the Golden Knights as the Jets stomped them 5-1 in Game 1 behind two goals from Adam Lowry and Connor Hellebuyck stopping 16 of just 17 shots on goal.

That proved to be just a blip on the radar as Vegas won the next four games by scoring 18 goals over that stretch. Laurent Brossoit, the new number one for the playoffs due to an injury to Thompson, righted the ship after his Game 1 performance and stopped 114 of 123 shots for a .927 SV% and 2.05 GAA the rest of the way.

Offensively it was Chandler Stephenson and Mark Stone leading the way with 8 points while Jack Eichel, in the playoffs for the first time in his career posted 5 points (3 goals, 2 assists) in 5 games. The fact that Stephenson, William Karlsson, and Brett Howden would be among the points leaders for the team was a good indication that their depth would play a key factor in their playoff run.

As expected in the Gentleman’s Sweep, the Golden Knights dominated most of the 5v5 statistical categories with a 54.83% edge in expected goals and 52.87 lead in high-danger chances. Of their 15 goals scored at 5v5, 10 of them came from high-danger areas according to Natural Stat Trick. A small blemish on their record was their 58.3% penalty kill, a number they could surely improve on in the next round, right? Right?

Round Two – The Edmonton Oilers

  • Vegas wins series 4-2

After being such a disciplined team in the regular season in regards to penalties taken, the Golden Knights have spent quite a bit more time in the box as they’ve averaged 4.34 penalties per game through the first three rounds. While it didn’t cost them against the Oilers, it came close. Vegas was shorthanded 23 times against the Edmonton McDraisaitl’s and allowed 9 power play goals in six games. So, technically their 60.9% penalty kill was better than it was against the Jets, but just barely.

The teams traded the first four games of the series with Vegas winning Games 1 and 3 while scoring a total of 11 goals, but losing Games 2 and 4 when they were held to just two goals. More concerning was the fact that in Game 3, Brossoit left the game in the first period with an injury that would knock him out for the rest of the postseason.

The Golden Knights were now down to their third-string goaltender who had been acquired from the San Jose Sharks for a 2024 fourth-round pick just before training camp opened. The former Arizona third-round pick with a whopping 101 career NHL regular season games under his belt was going to stop Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl? Of course he was.

After the 4-1 Game 4 loss where he allowed three goals on eleven shots in the first period, Hill played well in the Game 5 win, allowing 3 goals all game, all on the power play, and then stopped 38 of 40 shots in a 5-2 win that clinched the series.

Again, it was strong 5v5 play that propelled them into the Western Conference Final. Despite allowing 9 power play goals in 34:57 of short-handed time, the Golden Knights only allowed 9 5v5 goals in the 268:24 minutes of ice time during the series. Vegas dominated the front of the net scoring, as they added another 10 goals from high-danger areas while allowing just 4 to Edmonton.

Offensively it was Eichel who had his breakout series with 9 points (3 goals, 6 assists) and Marchessault, propelled by a Game 6 hat trick and 5 goals total in the series that led the way. Trade Deadline acquisition Ivan Barbashev also had 6 points as the Golden Knights used their depth to overcome the top two players in the NHL.

Marchessault’s natural hat trick
R2, Gm6: Jonathan Marchessault records 3 straight goals in the 2nd period to earn a natural hat trick, giving the Golden Knights a 4-2 lead

Western Conference Final – Dallas Stars

  • Vegas wins series 4-2

After dispatching the Oilers in six games, the Golden Knights were able to sit back and watch Seattle and Dallas pound on each other for a full seven games. The Stars emerged victorious from the series, and a rematch of the 2020 Bubble Cup Conference Finals was set. Perhaps a little worn out by the slugfest they had with the Kraken, Dallas came out a little slow and never quite found their footing.

Vegas jumped on them by beating them in overtime in Games 1 and 2 with Brett Howden netting the OT winner in the first game and Chandler Stephenson in the second. Vegas kept the pressure on with a 4-0 win against Dallas in Game 3 with Hill stopping all 34 shots he faced. Tired and frustrated, Dallas dug their own hole a little deeper as Jamie Benn was ejected in the first period for a hit that would earn him a two-game suspension when he “fell” on Mark Stone stick-first.

The Stars did manage to breathe a little life back into the series with wins in Games 4 and 5, but Hill posted his second shutout of the series as Vegas throttled the Stars in Game 6, 6-0. William Karlsson scored twice to hit the 10-goal mark in the postseason (a franchise record for a single playoff run) while Marchessault scored his 9th of the playoffs. Marchessault led the scoring in the round with 7 more points (4 goals, 3 assists) while William Karlsson had 5 goals.

While Dallas ended up with a slight edge in expected goals for at 5v5 (51%), it was Vegas once again scoring from the dangerous spots as they added another 13 goals from high-danger areas. Their 33 high-danger goals at 5v5 far and away leads the postseason (Dallas is next with 22). The Golden Knights have been exceptional throughout this run at getting to the front of the net and burying their chances.

Even their penalty kill showed signs of life against a Dallas team that had been pretty good with the extra skater. Vegas finished the series with a 72.7 PK%, their highest number against any opponent in the postseason.

So to sum up, the Vegas Golden Knights have topped off their very good regular season with an even better run through the playoffs. They have depth scoring as 7 different players have recorded at least 10 points. They don’t turn the puck over and limit teams’ ability to generate constant offense. They’re getting above average goaltending from Aiden Hill (Evolving Hockey has him at 10.27 Goals Saved Above Expected, second only to Sergei Bobrovsky’s extraordinary 21.42 GSAx).

They might not play an exciting brand of fire wagon hockey, but they have the ability to draw the energy out of the teams and suppress the scoring of some fairly talented teams.

While the Western Conference might not have been the juggernaut that the Eastern Conference was this season, Vegas has earned their way into the Stanley Cup Final and will be another stiff test for the Panthers. Not that that has stopped Florida so far this spring. Collecting wins against 100+ point teams like they’re Infinity Stones en route to a Stanley Cup would make this one of the most impressive playoff seasons of all time.