I’ve never been a believer in the Vegas Golden Knights, but they keep winning playoff rounds I don’t expect them too. It was true in 2018 when they knocked off San Jose and Winnipeg, both 100-plus point teams, en route to the Stanley Cup Finals. And it was true again this year when I picked the Chicago Blackhawks to pull the upset.
Instead, the Golden Knights won in a comfortable five games. There was never a point—even during Chicago’s lone win in Game 4, when you felt Vegas was in any way out of control. I keep asking myself—how do the Knights keep doing it?
Before digging into the details of Vegas’ play, the first thing to point out is that anyone who picked the Blackhawks to win this series was doing so in the face of three solid seasons of incompetent play. That includes this year when only the lockdown and expansion of the playoffs gave Chicago a second chance. Picking the Blackhawks to knock off the Golden Knights required a massive overreaction to Chicago’s impressive elimination of Edmonton in the preliminaries.
I delivered that overreaction, mainly due to a romanticized notion that the warriors of the Blackhawks’ great championship teams (2010, 2013, 2015)—Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and goaltender Corey Crawford could gin it up for one last run.
Instead, it turns out that the preliminary round triumph had more to do with Edmonton playing undisciplined hockey and poor defense.
That brings us to Vegas. In watching this series, the one thing that struck me the most was they rarely allowed anything easy. I’m talking about mistakes like slipshod defense that gives a good player a point-blank look at the goalie from close in. Or allowing the opponent to congregate their players in front of the net for a redirect. Or poor passing that allows an odd-man rush the other way. No team can be perfect in preventing these things, but the Golden Knights certainly minimize their errors.
The disparity in shots taken illustrates the point. Vegas outshot Chicago 187-123 over five games. That’s a mammoth advantage. Crawford actually played really well for the Blackhawks, while the Knights’ duo of Robin Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury was so-so. But Vegas was so in control between the nets that the goalies didn’t really matter.
Nor was the shot advantage a fluke. Over the course of the regular season, Vegas took 35 shots per game. They allowed 29. Both stats put them in the top five of the league. Think of it like on-base percentage in baseball. If you lead the league, you’re maximizing your chances to score. It’s why that, even though the Golden Knights’ lineup doesn’t seem impressive, they keep winning.
I still have my doubts about Vegas against the league’s very best teams. They have to sustain the quality penalty-kill performance they’ve put in thus far in the bubble. A unit that was one of the NHL’s worst during the regular season has been successful during the three seeding games and the Chicago series.
But one thing I am sure of is that Vegas is not a team that’s going to succumb easily to an upset. That’s no small thing in a league where underdogs routinely win big postseason series. The legendary Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight used to implore his teams to do one simple thing—be hard to beat. That’s what the Golden Knights are.