The Knights became the third franchise in NHL history to take a 3-0 series lead in their first playoff appearance ever. They became the first to do it in their inaugural season, obviously, because no first-year expansion team in this era had made the playoffs, period, before Vegas won the Pacific Division with a 109-point season.
What’s maybe even more celebratory to the Golden Knights isn’t so much thrashing all these league records en route to a possible Western Conference Final berth, or perhaps even an eventual Stanley Cup Final berth (!), but rather silencing all the team’s many doubters in the process. And there have been a lot of those doubters.
Vegas is more than firmly in the driver’s seat. Teams that take a 3-0 lead in seven-game NHL playoff series have gone on to win 204 out of 208 times.
It’s not as if this team has a chip on its shoulder. It hasn’t all year.
The Knights haven’t made a big show about how disrespected they’ve been, or about taking on doubters. But many big names, media members, and fans across the country (including me) didn’t think Vegas could field a team like this in its first year of hockey life.
A roster made up of expansion-draft players the other 30 NHL teams didn’t care enough about to protect shouldn’t be good enough to go this far, a lot of us thought. It couldn’t keep shattering expansion teams’ glass ceilings and moving with grace and ease through what’s supposed to be a brutal and grueling postseason.
The Golden Knights have to hit a wall eventually. Right? Well, maybe not.
You’re not supposed to win with a roster of outcasts and players who weren’t good enough to be on protected lists for other NHL teams. Vegas had to build a roster from scraps, but that hasn’t mattered to this franchise. Playing a modern style of hockey, built on speed and not brutality, is looked down upon by old and/or washed-up former players and coaches (even though the Pittsburgh Penguins are back-to-back champions using the same style). That didn’t matter to Vegas. Nothing seems to faze this team in any way.
“I think people have been waiting (for us to lose) since Game 1, and it hasn’t happened yet,” Vegas center Cody Eakin said after Game 3. “We don’t plan on slowing down.”
The game of hockey is changing. Speed, skill, skating, and finesse now trump the old-fashioned mantras of grit, physicality, and toughness, and that’s been difficult for the old heads to wrap their heads around, especially when you consider the kind of reputation the Western Conference has. (Most observers will tell you the West is bigger and tougher than the East, and that Vegas doesn’t fit that style exactly.) More importantly, it’s proving that Vegas doesn’t need to be ridiculously tough to win hockey games in a resounding way.
Game 3 was a microcosm of why Vegas has been so good.
Los Angeles is an aggressive team. The Kings battered, pummeled, and slammed around the Golden Knights throughout the entire 60 minutes of play, but ultimately fell short in their victory effort. Vegas not only weathered the all-out punishment LA gave it, but the Knights scored three times in the third period after absorbing all those hits to improve to just one game from a second-round berth, its first ever NHL playoff series win, and shockingly, a series sweep in what was supposed to be a difficult series. The reality check people have been expecting for the Golden Knights still has yet to come.
“They were hard on us,” goal-scorer James Neal said. “They were physical, a heavy team that you’d expect. Kind of weathered the storm a bit at the start, and I thought we continued to get to our game until the third.”
The Kings threw everything and the kitchen sink at Vegas, took their first lead of the series, had their star players score, crunched them into the boards and onto the ice, and the Golden Knights still won. This shouldn’t come as a surprise anymore.
If you haven’t already, it’s time to hop on the bandwagon and enjoy the ride.
The Golden Knights are showing gleaming signs of a team hell-bent on a deep postseason run, and I’m hard-pressed to imagine them fizzling out any time soon.