LAS VEGAS – If you took an anonymous poll, which is the only poll that would work because no one inside the National Hockey League says these things on the record, the Vegas Golden Knights would be nearly everyone’s upset special in the Western Conference’s opening playoff round.
Nashville Predators? Best team in the NHL. Winnipeg Jets? Robust and formidable. Golden Knights? Aren’t they the expansion team that overachieved with all those expendable players who had career years? Nice story, but it’s way past midnight for Cinderella.
And this was before the Los Angeles Kings, Stanley Cup winners in 2014 and 2012, managed to slip down to fourth place in the Pacific Division on Saturday night to draw Vegas in the first round of the playoff tournament.
The Knights have been dismissed so often this season, without the great collapse ever actually occurring for the record-breaking team that won 51 games, that their underestimation by others just amuses them. Why should the playoffs be any different?
“There are people that say that we are trash from the start,” Vegas winger Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, taken from the Philadelphia Flyers in the expansion draft three years after making the NHL at age 29, said during the Knights’ three-game road trip to Western Canada last week. “There’s people that said we won’t get any points. Now, people will say: ‘They’re going to get kicked out (of the playoffs) right away. They won’t win a game.’ People have opinions, right? But it doesn’t mean we have to listen to them.
“At the end of the day, the performance on the ice and in the room is what most matters. Whatever you read off the media, it’s not in the room right now. That can’t affect any of us. That’s the way I think.”
The Knights’ best-of-seven series against the Kings opens Wednesday at T-Mobile Arena, which may have been the funnest place to watch a hockey game this season.
A rallying point for Nevadans after the Oct. 1 mass murder of 58 Las Vegas concert-goers nine days before their home-opener, the Knights have a relationship with their fans that would be the envy of many established NHL franchises.
As Vegas general manager George McPhee told Sportsnet last month: “After Oct. 1, the team was suddenly on a much higher platform. There was an obligation to help the city heal and move on. And that really made the bond between the team and the community that much stronger. It accelerated everything in terms of bringing the team and city together and unifying them in a way nothing else could do.”
Carried by emotion, the Knights stunned opponents in October, bolting to an 8-1 start and winning all six home games. But when they went 1-4-1 on their next road trip, the Knights’ market correction was supposed to be underway.
Then the team won six of its next seven. When they lost three in a row at the end of November, the Knights responded by going 12-0-1 in their next 13 games. Near the start of that surge, they went into Nashville and Dallas on consecutive nights and swept both games.
“I thought we outplayed both of those teams,” Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said. “That’s when I really said to myself: ‘We’ve got a helluva team here that’s going to compete.’ I think we earned a lot of respect on that trip, but I think our guys really believed in themselves.”
“I think we were always confident after the start we had,” Colin Miller, the ex-Boston Bruin, said. “We were pretty happy, but I think we did a good job of not getting overconfident. We knew there was a lot of work left to do. I think a lot of guys came in this year with a bit of a chip on their shoulder. It’s not an easy feeling when you get let go by an organization. I think a lot of guys knew this was an opportunity (to prove yourself) and they wanted to take advantage of it.”
Miller emerged this season as an offensive defenceman, collecting 10 goals and 41 points. Former Washington Capitals blueliner Nate Schmidt was right behind him with 36 points.
Former Florida Panthers forwards Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith combined for 135 points, which would have been even more impressive had their linemate, ex-Columbus Blue Jackets checker William Karlsson, not blown everyone away with 43 goals and 78 points.
With forwards James Neal and David Perron, Alex Tuch and Tomas Tatar, Cody Eakin and Ryan Reaves, and defencemen Brayden McNabb and Deryk Engelland playing behind Miller and Schmidt, the Knights have a blend of speed and power.
They are not complicated. They play directly, using speed and puck movement and a jail-break transition game to put opponents under pressure.
“From the start, we kind of played a really quick, kind of playoff game,” Bellemare said. “Every mistake, guys were accountable for. The coach was telling us from the start if we play this way, we’re going to win more games than we lose. That was the main goal.”
The Knights went 51-24-7. They had more points this season, 109, than the Toronto Maple Leafs have had in any season in their 100-year existence. You can bet on almost anything in Las Vegas, but be careful about wagering against the Knights.
“It’s not only me, there’s a lot of other guys, too, with a chip on their shoulder and want to prove something,” Karlsson said. “People have doubted us even when we were winning. So I can’t see why we can’t prove people wrong once again.”