EDMONTON — Born as a group of misfits and castaways, the Vegas Golden Knights have grown up before our very eyes.
Although they haven’t abandoned some of the important character traits that allowed them to become the most successful expansion outfit in professional sports, there’s a new label which is much more representative.
Bona fide Stanley Cup contender.
The Golden Knights closed out the round-robin portion of the round-robin tournament with a 4-3 overtime victory over the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday afternoon at Rogers Place, leaving them with a flawless 3-0 record as they prepare to face the 12th-ranked Chicago Blackhawks in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Avalanche will meet the Arizona Coyotes, while the two other series in the Western Conference will be determined by the result of Sunday’s game between the St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars.
The Golden Knights still feature more than a dozen members of the original roster, so they haven’t really broken up the band. The core still includes top-six forwards William Karlsson, Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault. On the back end, Nate Schmidt and Brayden McNabb are still making a valuable contribution, but it’s Shea Theodore whose game has reached new heights.
“He has the ability to raise his level, depending on the moment and how important the game is,” said Golden Knights head coach Peter DeBoer. “You saw that (against the Avalanche). He was elite. That’s in both ends. He’s learned to defend with his feet and I’ve said this before, but I think this guy is going to be in the Norris conversation for years to come here.”
The Golden Knights’ core group has been bolstered by the combination of sound drafting, shrewd trades and free-agent signings. A pair of blockbusters brought in Mark Stone from the Ottawa Senators and Max Pacioretty from the Montreal Canadiens.
Stone is the Golden Knights’ best two-way forward, a guy who quietly piles up points while providing Selke-level defensive play. Pacioretty, who led his team with 32 goals and 66 points in 71 games, remains back in Vegas dealing with an undisclosed injury or ailment, though the hope is that he will rejoin his teammates sooner rather than later.
Deadline deals have also been critical, including this year’s addition of goalie Robin Lehner, defenceman Alec Martinez and depth forward Nick Cousins. In those deals, GM Kelly McCrimmon added some important depth between the pipes to go with incumbent Marc-Andre Fleury, and a blue-liner with Stanley Cup-winning experience that can help on the penalty kill.
When you include the single exhibition game, Fleury and Lehner, who made 32 saves and was sensational on Saturday, split the action right down the middle. DeBoer wasn’t about to show his hand when asked if he’s decided who is going to get the call in the series opener against the Blackhawks.
“We haven’t even thought about Game 1 yet,” said DeBoer. “I believe we’re going to need both guys and both guys are going to play. We’ll see how that rolls out. I haven’t even thought about it yet and we haven’t had those discussions yet. I can guarantee that if we get where we want to go, we’re going to be using both guys.”
Lehner was quick to deflect when asked about it after the game. He’s here to support Fleury, not supplant him.
“Every game I get to play, I’ll do my best,” said Lehner. “Marc is a world-class goaltender and has been one of the best in the League for a very long time. I said when they traded for me at the deadline, I’m here whenever they need me.”
Only time will tell, but the fact remains the Golden Knights are comfortable with either guy in net, even if Fleury’s save percentage was down and his goals-against average was up this season. He’s a guy who has come through when the organization has needed him and that counts for a lot. At the very least, Lehner provides a valuable safety net.
“When we traded for him, I thought our whole team got a boost,” said Theodore. “We have two world-class goalies.”
On the free-agent front, the Golden Knights addressed their centre depth by signing veteran Paul Stastny to a three-year deal in the summer of 2018. Stastny has plenty of playoff experience and has been a productive player for a long time, and right now he’s playing with original cast members Smith and Marchessault — who had two goals on Saturday, including a penalty shot.
Not everything has gone smoothly for the Golden Knights, though.
Most notably, they made a coaching change this year, bringing in Peter DeBoer to replace Gerard Gallant — who enjoyed a lot of success during his first two seasons. DeBoer made a few changes to the Golden Knights’ systems but eventually the group got back to playing an aggressive style that allowed them to win the Pacific Division.
Even if it was odd to be playing a system they were more familiar playing against when DeBoer was the bench boss of their rival.
“He brought a lot of structure to our game, some small clarifications,” said Marchessault. “And at first it was kind of hard a little bit to get where it was going because we were all seeing San Jose Sharks systems and stuff like that, which was kind of like a little funny. But we all bought into his system and honestly, we’ve been really good since he’s here.”
Now that the Golden Knights secured the top seed in the Western Conference, they’re going to look to build from the experience of advancing to the Stanley Cup Final in 2018.
Only this time, the plan is to finish the job.
“It’s something we talked about since the beginning. We came here with one goal and obviously it’s the Stanley Cup, but we’ve got to take it one step at a time,” said Marchessault. “We came here to take every challenge ahead of us and we did a good job. We wanted the first seed after the round robin and we got it done. It’s pretty positive. We’re really happy where our game is at as a team.”
Having said that, the Golden Knights aren’t about to look past the Blackhawks, who turned heads by bouncing the Edmonton Oilers in the qualifying round.
“Obviously we’ve got a pretty good task against Chicago here. They definitely earned some respect in the league,” said Marchessault. “They’re one of the best teams for the past 10 years. Definitely, we’re going to focus on that.”
As much fun as the Golden Knights had with their unexpected run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2018, losing in five games to the Washington Capitals still left them feeling unsatisfied.
“First and foremost, every game means a lot,” said Golden Knights winger Alex Tuch, who scored the overtime winner with 15.9 seconds left on Saturday. “We learned it that first year, that if we can get up on a team or 1-0 in a series or jump ahead or even when we’re behind, to be able to come back and show some resilience, I mean, every little play, every little game matters. That’s one of the biggest things I took away from the first year, and obviously we came up short and we don’t want that to happen again.”
When asked about the most important lesson he learned during the pause caused by the pandemic, DeBoer mentioned the commitment and engagement level his players showed, whether it was during Zoom calls or informal workouts.
The desire to win it all remains at the forefront and now it’s time to see if they can deliver as the No. 1 seed.
“While we don’t have home-ice advantage, it gives you last change and it gives you the lowest seed every round to play against. You hope that becomes an important piece because at the end, there is very little that separates teams,” said DeBoer. “I’ve gone on record before with this — it might be the hardest Cup to win ever. Circumstances, the format and the path you’ve got to go and (with) how healthy everybody else in the league is and fresh, you’re going to get everybody’s best.
“It’s an exceptional opportunity to go out and compete for, at least in our minds, the greatest prize in pro sports.”