2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview: Vegas Golden Knights vs. Los Angeles Kings

Vegas Golden Knights' Shea Theodore (27), William Karlsson (71) and Jonathan Marchessault celebrate Karlsson's goal against the Edmonton Oilers during the second period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018, in Las Vegas. (David Becker/AP)

The Vegas Golden Knights’ inaugural playoff series will bring together two clubs on opposite paths—the expansion team heading into uncharted waters for its first-ever playoff experience, and the former champs, full of veterans with multiple Stanley Cup rings, looking to cap off their redemption effort with a return to the top of the post-season mountain.

That isn’t the only way this series brings together two opposing forces, however. It’ll also pit one of the season’s best offensive clubs against one of its best on the defensive side. Vegas finished fourth in the league in terms of goals scored, iced the 10th best power play, and averaged the ninth-most shots per game. How’s this for an answer? The Los Angeles Kings allowed the fewest goals league-wide, have the season’s best penalty kill numbers, and averaged the eighth-fewest shots-against per game.

Their four meetings during the regular season suggest it isn’t quite that simple, though. Each side earned two wins and each got one of those in regulation and one in overtime. A dead heat. As well, both teams have thrived off of completely unexpected performances—William Karlsson’s 43 goals are more than double the total he posted over his previous three seasons combined, and Dustin Brown put up a career-best 61 points at age 33 after watching his numbers decline over the past half decade.

Does Vegas’ Cinderella story keep running to the second round? Or does the seemingly insurmountable number of playoff games under the belts of Los Angeles’ leaders help them navigate their way through Vegas?

ADVANCED STATS
5-on-5 via Corsica.Hockey
Vegas: 50.96 CF% (12th), 52.78 GF% (9th), .922 SP% (17th), 8.38 SH% (6th), 100.57 PDO (10th)

Los Angeles: 50.05 CF% (16th), 52.98 GF% (8th), .931 SP% (4th), 7.80 SH% (14th), 101.88 PDO (9th)

POWER NUMBER
Determined by percentiles created for a variety of statistics and weighed equally to give each team a grade out of 10 for offence and defence (seven for 5-on-5 and three for special teams). These numbers are then averaged to come up with a power number to measure a team’s all-around play.

TEAM OFFENCE (rank) DEFENCE (rank) POWER NUMBER (rank)
Vegas 5.21 (16th) 5.61 (11th) 5.41 (12th)
Los Angeles 2.79 (28th) 7.29 (3rd) 5.04 (16th)

TEAM STATS
Vegas: 21.4 PP% (9th), 81.4 PK% (10th), 268 GF (5th), 225 GA (8th)

Los Angeles: 20.4 PP% (17th), 85.0 PK% (1st), 237 GF (16th), 202 GA (1st)

HEAD-TO-HEAD RECORD
Vegas: 2-1-1

Los Angeles: 2-1-1

Vegas Golden Knights Outlook: It’s all gravy for the Golden Knights, who are easily the best expansion team to ever hit the ice. And within this roster there are plenty of great stories: from Will “Wild Bill” Karlsson‘s monster season, to Marc-Andre Fleury‘s quietly excellent numbers, to the goalies who filled in for him early in the season, to Jonathan Marchessault and Alex Tuch‘s offence and Deryk Engelland‘s leadership. The Golden Knights are far and away the best story in the NHL this season and their coach, Gerard Gallant, is a shoe-in for the Jack Adams Award, one year after being kicked to the curb in Florida.

Now the playoffs are here, though, and everyone is wondering how far this Cinderella journey can go. The Golden Knights remain one of the quickest puck-moving teams in the NHL with an excellent transition game, which could cause all sorts of problems for bigger, slower teams. On the other hand, those teams may be able to dominate Vegas in the corners and with the cycle.

Even though they won the Pacific Division and have securely been in a playoff spot since at least January, the Golden Knights are an enigma. As a first-year team, they should be easy first-round fodder—then again, by that logic they shouldn’t be in the playoffs at all. Vegas started the year on a tear and aren’t crawling into the playoffs on the strength of their first half—the Golden Knights are 25-14-5 since Jan. 1, which is the ninth-best record in the league over that time.

A lot of their early-season success came from their play at home, where they lost just three of their first 21 games at T-Mobile Arena. And even though that rate has slowed (Vegas went 7-6-0 in their final 13 home games), their road play has improved. The Golden Knights are 12-6-4 on the road since Jan. 1, which helped keep them atop the division. They’ve adapted and kept up their high level of play all season—it may be hard to pick an expansion team to win a round or two in the post-season, but it’s even harder to bet against Vegas.

Los Angeles Kings Outlook: The club formerly known as the Corsi kings now have a new coach and a new style, one year removed from missing the playoffs. After leading in CF% five years in a row, Los Angeles has a more open style under coach John Stevens than they did under Darryl Sutter and his heavy, suffocating approach. This year, they’re 16th in that stat, but are scoring at a higher rate and nearly half a goal per game more than they averaged last season.

But make no mistake, this is still a heavy team. The Kings rank third in hits and 11th in penalty minutes, but are just getting more quality scoring chances than before. They have a shooting percentage of 9.4 that is higher than any other season in the past eight years.

Los Angeles is here because of a few bounceback seasons, tops among them being Anze Kopitar, who has scored 40 more points than he did a year ago. This has given life to Dustin Brown who had a career year—Tyler Toffoli also recovered from a down season and Jeff Carter returned from injury to score 13 times in his past 20 games.

At the same time, their team defence remains strong and Jonathan Quick is having his second-best season ever. The Kings have the lowest GAA in the league and the sixth-best goals for/against split across all situations. With just one playoff win since last winning the Stanley Cup in 2014, Los Angeles is back on track to try and regain the crown.

Golden Knights X-Factor: In 183 career NHL games coming into this season, William Karlsson had 18 goals. This season in Vegas, Karlsson scored 43 times. The easiest explanation for this explosion is that Karlsson has converted on 23.4 per cent of his shots, a huge jump from his career average of 7.7 coming into this season.

That is reason No. 1 on the list of why Karlsson is a candidate to regress next season, but for the Golden Knights to find continued success in the playoffs, his production can’t level off yet. Vegas’ leading goal-getter is showing no signs of slowing, either, scoring 16 goals in his final 29 games. There are other weapons here (Marchessault, David Perron, Reilly Smith, etc.) but Karlsson has been the main driver, and is key to their playoff push.

Kings X-Factor: From 2010-14, Jonathan Quick had the fifth-best playoff save percentage among goalies with at least 30 post-season games, a solid .923 mark that led the Kings to two Cups. In the first of those wins, Quick took home the Conn Smythe Trophy thanks to an incredible .946 mark, which still stands as the highest playoff save percentage on record.

It was a different story in 2016, the last time Los Angeles got this far. Quick struggled to an .886 mark and allowed 15 goals as the rival San Jose Sharks rolled over the Kings in five games. The 32-year-old American has made a name for himself as a playoff performer, but has to prove himself at this level all over again.

TEAM LEADERS (G-A-PTS)
Vegas: William Karlsson (43-35-78), Jonathan Marchessault (27-48-75), David Perron (16-50-66)

Los Angeles: Anze Kopitar (35-57-92), Dustin Brown (28-33-61), Drew Doughty (10-50-60)

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