The Golden Knights have what it takes to upset a top seed — if they can make the playoffs

Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Robin Lehner is introduced before the team's NHL hockey game against the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, in Las Vegas. (David Becker/AP)

The Vegas Golden Knights have had a rough year. You can look at the standings to make that assessment, sure, but that’s not exactly what I mean. I mean they had Stanley Cup aspirations with a nice roster, they made a big addition mid-season in Jack Eichel, they’re in a soft division, but whoops … everybody’s been hurt roughly all the time.

Check out the visual below. From Man Games Lost, here are the teams who’ve lost the most man-games to injury (if five players miss one game your team has lost five man games) over the 2021-22 season:

There are six teams listed there with more “man games” lost due to injury than Vegas, but as you can see, they’ve got the biggest bubble size of any team, meaning they’ve also lost their most important players, too.

To make that whole “quality of man games lost” a little easier to digest:

If they’re just a few players healthier for a few more games they’d likely have been able to recoup at least a handful of those lost points, and wouldn’t find themselves where they currently sit in the NHL standings: outside the playoffs. A couple more wins and this article’s never even something I’d consider. Alas, there are no alternate realities for them, or at least this is the one they’re stuck in.

Here’s a snapshot of the West as of April 13. After losing an overtime point to the Canucks on Tuesday night, they’re in trouble:

I include Vancouver and Winnipeg in the picture because we’re a Canadian company and not officially cooked, but y’know, go ahead and look UP from Vegas, and see what they’re grappling with.

The Golden Knights have a couple paths to get into playoffs, but they’re going to need help.

One path would be to catch LA and finish third in the Pacific. The Kings hold a three-point lead on Vegas but with an extra game played, meaning a win Thursday would put VGK a single point behind the Kings with seven games left each, and the Golden Knights lead LA in regulation wins, meaning a tie goes the Knights’ way.

(Edmonton’s five-point lead over Vegas is likely insurmountable, but it’s worth noting Vegas and Edmonton do play head-to-head in a week, so there is some swing potential there.)

The other path is the wild card spot, which sees Dallas and Nashville three and four points up respectively. The Stars have a game in-hand on Vegas, but unlike Nashville, Dallas has to face Vegas again head-to-head on Tuesday, April 26. It’s very possible that game holds huge post-season implications for not just the two teams in the game, but number-one seeds in the Pacific and Central divisions.

With all due respect to Dallas, these are not the same calibre teams for reasons mentioned above (injuries), and Vegas squeaking in significantly changes the type of opposition they’d have to game-plan for.

Here's how the prognostication-focused website Five Thirty Eight handicaps the playoff chances of the West teams still in the hunt:

Nashville: 96 per cent chance they make the playoffs

Dallas: 90 per cent

Los Angeles: 60 per cent

Vegas: 44 per cent

Vancouver: 9 per cent

And this one below is via MoneyPuck, your favourite website on earth if you’re a Kings fan:

Obviously these two models consider different inputs or weight them significantly different, but you get the general gist. Vegas is on the outside looking in.

All that said, I bet them to make the playoffs today at +120, mostly because I believe that good teams find a way, the Knights haven’t been healthy, and will be treating every game from here on in like a playoff game. That makes it even more scary for potential first round opponents if Vegas does get in. Often teams who scrap and claw in “playoff mode” in the weeks leading up to playoffs come in sharper than those hoping to suddenly flip the switch.

The reason I’ve included Nashville as a team who could still fall out of playoffs? Remaining schedule.

Of teams currently in a playoff position, the Predators have the hardest strength of schedule, followed by the Oilers. The teams clustered on the left are remaining opponents that are playoff teams, the ones on the right are those that aren’t:

So Nashville has just an onslaught of quality opposition ahead, including the three games against No. 1 seeds in the West. The Oilers' schedule is softer, but barely.

Working against Vegas: the Kings and Dallas are near the league’s bottom, with some of the easiest roads to the finish line. LA has the second easiest schedule remaining, and only six teams have easier remaining opposition than Dallas:



The caveat I’ll add to the Stars' “softer” schedule is having Vegas listed on the “easy” side here, and they’ll play the Canucks in a few days while they still believe they have a chance to get in, so they’re not getting some group that’s rolling over waiting for tee times there either. You could bump both those teams left.

Mark Stone played his first game back on Tuesday night for Vegas, and he should just get better as he gets more comfortable. Robin Lehner’s got four games under his belt since returning from injury and should get comfortable again. Max Pacioretty has played two games since his return and saw his ice time just from 14 to 18 minutes. Hell, they got to keep Evgenii Dadonov, which doesn’t hurt either.

In all likelihood Vegas will need to go 6-2 over their final eight games – which would take them to 97 points – to get into the post-season. And, their schedule isn’t easy:

… But for a team that started the year with Cup hopes and is finally getting healthy, it’s not an outcome they couldn’t accomplish.

They didn’t expect to be in this spot, and the grind has come sooner than expected (and so welcome back, Mr. Stone!). But they’re legit, and with the pressure on, I expect to see them the best they’ve looked at any point over this season to date, which would take them to the front door of playoffs.

What remains to be seen though, is if anyone above them will struggle so much that they open it.

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