The Vegas Golden Knights were the most incredible story in hockey before they finished off a sweep of the Los Angeles Kings in their first playoff series ever. That doesn’t make Tuesday’s 1-0 win any less awesome for a franchise still in its infancy.
Vegas just held an NHL team to three goals in four games and won all of them. The Knights pulled this off with a roster full of players who the league’s other 30 teams either didn’t want or didn’t care enough about to protect during last summer’s expansion draft.
This kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen. Vegas’ whole season is the kind of thing that shouldn’t happen, but the Knights have proven that conventional limits on expansion teams don’t apply to them. Here’s why this amazing, meaningful season is still going:
Marc-Andre Fleury put on a virtuoso performance all series, but he was especially good in Game 4.
The Vegas goalie pitched his second shutout of the series on 31 shots. He stopped 127 of the 130 shots he faced in four games, with some overtime minutes added in. That’s a .977 save percentage and 0.65 goals-against average, both preposterous figures that most goalies will never achieve in the playoffs.
He made a couple of memorable stops in the third period. One was against Anze Kopitar just before the midway point, after Kopitar wound through the whole Vegas defense:
What a shift by Kopitar and what a stop by Fleury. pic.twitter.com/2IhlcOAr28— Ryan Quigley (@RP_Quigs) April 18, 2018
Another — and the one that finally made this series feel over — was a robbery of Dustin Brown in the final minute, when Brown had a prime look at the net:
Fleury came out to challenge Brown, and he won.
Vegas didn’t win this series with offense, but the Knights got enough timely goals to make Fleury’s dominant performance stand up.
The lone goal-scorer in Game 4 was Brayden McNabb, the Knights’ expansion draft pick from the Kings last summer. He has 12 goals in 314 career regular-season games and had none in eight playoff games entering Tuesday, but here he was, sticking a one-timer past Jonathan Quick to give the Knights the most consequential goal in their young history:
The Knights’ top scorers — more on them shortly — didn’t fill the nets. But they had amazing balance, with seven different guys scoring one goal apiece. Someone different stepped up every time the Knights needed a goal, which is a smart way to do business when you’re an expansion team without access to any of the league’s top scoring talents.
The Golden Knights are still stunning, because first-year expansion teams are supposed to be bad. But they’ve answered every question all year long.
There’s no historic precedent for what they’ve done. Their 66.4 point percentage in the regular season was 17 points better than any other expansion team since the league grew to something resembling its modern membership in 1967-68. Really, Vegas has been better than any first-year expansion squad in the history of the major North American professional sports leagues, period. This was true before they took the ice in the playoffs.
At this stage, though, what’s surprising about any of this? It’s almost impossible to win an NHL division, as the Knights did in the Pacific, on nothing but smoke and mirrors. The underlying stats never suggested that they did that, anyway. Of the league’s 31 teams in the regular season, Vegas was No. 8 in share of even-strength scoring chances and No. 10 in share of total shot attempts.
They were consistently above average as possessors of the puck, and on special teams, they had the league’s No. 11 power play and No. 10 penalty-kill unit. They had sizable advantages in possession and scoring chances against the Kings, too.
This team has so many amazing stories, but again, they’re not new amazing stories. They’ve been unfolding in front of our eyes all year.
A 33-year-old Fleury had the best year of his career, morphing from a beloved but flawed goalie with the Penguins into a guy who’d have a compelling Vezina Trophy case if he hadn’t only played in 46 games due to some early injury problems. Among goalies who played in 41 regular-season games or more, Fleury was second with a .927 save percentage and first with a 2.24 goals-against average. His career averages are .912 and 2.58. He was somehow better in this series than he was in his best regular season ever.
William Karlsson, a 25-year-old from Sweden who until this year was mostly known as one of the NHL’s obscure other Karlssons, morphed into a 43-goal scorer and a possession monster. James Neal, Erik Haula, Jonathan Marchessault — all forwards who’d either been stars or shown flashes before — gave the Knights roughly as good of seasons as general manager George McPhee ever could’ve hoped for. They were part of the steady scoring attack that got the Knights over the finish line this week.
A group of defensemen that seemed primed for mediocrity after the expansion draft turned out to be good enough to get pucks up to Vegas’ skilled forwards and aid Fleury in goal prevention. The Knights got about 40 points apiece from Colin Miller and Nate Schmidt, the latter a pickup from the Capitals who everyone knew at the time was a real coup to get in an expansion draft. Schmidt was the exception in a defensive corps that didn’t appear to have much upside. McNabb’s now a playoff hero.
These players weren’t supposed to be this good as a group. But they did it all year, and any of us who expected the wheels to fall off in April clearly should’ve paid more attention.