Golden Knights continue record-breaking NHL expansion season
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The Vegas Golden Knights shocked the hockey world by setting a seemingly unending list of records in 2017-18 for a National Hockey League expansion team.
The Golden Knights, built with NHL retreads, promising young prospects obtained though the NHL Expansion draft and cunning trades by general manager George McPhee, finished with a remarkable 51-24-7 regular season record and 109 standings points to win the NHL’s Pacific Division in just their first year on the ice.
Vegas finished eight standings points ahead of the Anaheim Ducks, the runner-up in the division, and nine standings points ahead of the San Jose Sharks, the third place team in the division. The Los Angeles Kings finished in fourth place in the division 11 standings points behind the Nevada team.
All three California teams have either won the Stanley Cup or advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals in their respective histories. The Ducks won the Cup in 2007 and were a finalist in last year’s Western Conference Finals. The Kings won coveted Stanley Cups in 2012 and 2014.
The Sharks finished runner-up in the 2016 Stanley Cup Finals.
The Golden Knights appear to be keeping some rather exclusive company.
The 109 standings points placed the Golden Knights fifth best overall in the 31-team NHL — eight standings points behind the Nashville Predators, the top team in the league.
Only the Predators and the Winnipeg Jets (114 standings points) had better records in the Western Conference than Vegas. Only the Tampa Bay Lightning (113 standings points) and Boston Bruins (112 standings points) had better records in the Eastern Conference than the Golden Knights.
The Vegas team, funded to the tune of a $500 million expansion fee by principal owner Bill Foley, showed it had something special going for it from the first puck drop of the 2017-18 season.
Vegas won its inaugural NHL game — a 2-1 win over the host Dallas Stars — and set a league record for an expansion team by winning its first three games of the season. The Golden Knights set another league record for an expansion team by winning eight of its first nine games.
Other records by an expansion team followed:
The team won eight consecutive wins from Dec. 14 to Jan. 2 and recorded 34 wins in its first 50 games.
On Feb. 21, the Golden Knights recorded the most points in an inaugural season with 84.
On March 26, Vegas became the first team since the Edmonton Oilers and Hartford Whalers (refugees from the World Hockey Association) to make the playoffs in their first year.
On March 31, the Golden Knights became the first true expansion team in the four major sports to win its division in its inaugural season. The team had led the Pacific Division since Dec. 23.
It appears the Golden Knights are not finished breaking records after winning their opening two games to face off the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Golden Knights won their first playoff game in franchise history on April 11 by defeating the visiting Los Angeles Kings, 1-0, in front of an overflow crowd of 18, 479 at T-Mobile Arena (the seating capacity for hockey is listed at 17,500).
Defenseman Shea Theodore beat Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick on a long shot at 3:23 of the first period to notch the first goal in playoff history for the Vegas franchise. VGK goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who won three Stanley Cup championships over a 13-year span with the Pittsburgh Penguins, made 30 saves to backstop his team into Stanley Cup playoff history.
Tomas Nosek drew the assist on Theodore’s game-winner.
The Golden Knights followed up their history-making victory in Game 1 by edging the visiting Kings, 2-1, in a double overtime thriller on April 13 to take a 2-0 lead in the teams’ best-of-seven series.
Alex Tuch gave Vegas a 1-0 lead in the first period of Game 2 before Paul LaDue tied the game for the Kings with a second period goal. The game was scoreless through two full periods after that – and nearly a third.
James Neal set up teammate Erik Haula’s game-winning goal with 4:38 left in the second overtime period. Theodore drew the secondary assist to give him the team lead with two points in two playoff games.
Fleury continued his mastery by stopping 29 of 30 shots as the VGK racked up a 56-30 advantage in shots. Quick, in absorbing the loss, made 54 stops.
Fleury leads the league through two playoff games with a scintillating 0.39 GAA and a .983 save percentage.
The series shifts to Los Angeles for Game 3 on April 15 and Game 4 on April 17. The next three games, if necessary, would alternate between the two cities.
The Golden Knights possess a 35-5-2 record when scoring the first goal in the game. They are 2-0 when doing so thus far in their first playoff games in franchise history.
Media coverage will be intense for the remainder of the series. The NBCSN, CBC, Fox Sports-West, TVS, PRIME and ATTS-RM networks are handling regional telecasts.
The Golden Knights are only one of three NHL teams to offer Spanish-language broadcasts.
Not surprisingly, the city of Las Vegas is going crazy over the city’s first professional sports team (the NFL Raiders are coming in 2020). The replica 150-foot tall Statue of Liberty, a landmark on the Strip at the foot of the MGM Resorts’ New York New York Hotel & Casino, received a makeover by donning a huge 6,000-square foot Golden Knights jersey to help fans get into the playoff spirit.
The Golden Knights averaged 18,042 fans in the regular season – 103.9 percent of capacity.
In the spotlight
So, just who are these guys?
Theodore, a fourth-year pro, was acquired in an offseason trade with the Ducks to guarantee that the Golden Knights would select Clayton Stoner in the NHL Expansion Draft, thus protecting many of Anaheim’s top defensemen.
The 22-year-old British Columbia native should be familiar to Southern California hockey fans, in particular. He played in 76 games for the San Diego Gulls, the Ducks’ affiliate in the American Hockey League (AHL), from 2015-17 while also dressing 53 times for NHL games.
He collected 14 goals and 57 points with the Gulls before earning full-time promotion to the Ducks in 2016-17. He had five goals and 17 points in his two years with Anaheim before being traded to Vegas.
Theodore has played a contributing role in the success of the first-year Vegas Golden Knights.
After spending eight games with the Chicago Wolves, the Golden Knights’ AHL affiliate, to start this season, he went on to appear in 61 NHL regular season games for the Golden Knights. The ex-Gull fan favorite collected six goals and 23 assists for 29 points, one power play goal and one game-winning goal.
He recorded three shots, two blocks and one hit in Game 1 of the playoffs, including the history-making game-winning goal. He had five shots, one assist and three blocks in Game 2.
Tuch, a 21-year-old native of Syracuse, N.Y., is a former first-round pick (18th overall) by the Minnesota Wild in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. He had six prior NHL games to his credit before joining Vegas this season in a pre-expansion draft trade. In 78 regular season games with the Golden Knights, he produced 15 goals and 37 points to rank eighth in team scoring.
Haula, a 27-year-old native of Finland, spent five seasons in the Wild organization, including the last four at the NHL level, before being tabbed by Vegas in the expansion draft. In 76 regular season games with the Golden Knights, he tallied 29 goals and 55 points to rank fifth in scoring on the team.
Nosek, a 25-year-old wing from the Czech Republic, spent three seasons in the Detroit Red Wings organization before being tabbed by the Golden Knights in he NHL Expansion Draft. He helped the Grand Rapids Griffins capture last season’s Calder Cup championship in the AHL by leading the team in postseason scoring with 10 goals and 22 points in 19 playoffs games.
In 67 regular season games with Vegas, Nosek seven goals and 15 points to go with a +2 plus-minus rating.
Jonathan Marschessault and Reilly Smith drew the assists in Tuch’s game-opening goal in Game 2.
Marschessault, a 27-year-old center from Quebec, ranked second on the Golden Knights in regular season scoring with 75 points (27 goals, 48 assists) in 77 games. He joined the Golden Knights following the expansion draft after playing in 75 games with the Florida Panthers last season, tallying 30 goals and 51 assists.
Smith, a 27-year-old Toronto native, ranked fourth in team scoring with 60 points (22 goals, 38 assists) in 67 regular season games. He spent two seasons each in the Dallas Stars, Boston Bruins and Panthers organizations before joining Vegas in a trade with the Panthers associated with the expansion draft.
Top scorers on the Golden Knights during the regular season included forward William Karlsson, Marschessault, wingers David Perron, Smith, Haula and Neal and defenseman Colin Miller – all of whom bettered 40 points.
Karlsson, a 25-year-old Swede, posted NHL career highs with 19 assists and 25 points in 81 games last season with the Columbus Blue Jackets season before being picked up by Vegas in the expansion draft. He led the Golden Knights in scoring in 2017-18 with 78 points (43 goals, 35 assists) in 82 games and topped the team with a +49 plus-minus rating.
Perron, 29, from Quebec, was acquired from St. Louis in the expansion draft after spending seven years in the Blues organization (he was drafted in the first round in 2007). He ranked third in regular season scoring with 66 points (16 goals, 50 points) in 70 games.
Neal, a 30-year-old Ontario native, is playing in his 11th season as a pro. He helped guide Nashville to last year’s Stanley Cup Finals after tallying 23 goals and41 points in 70 regular season playoffs and tacking on six goals and nine points in 22 playoff games.
Neal finished sixth on the Vegas team in regular season scoring with 44 points (25 goals, 19 assists) in 71 games.
Miller, a 25-year-old native of Ontario, finished as the top scoring defenseman on the Golden Knights during their inaugural season with 41 points (10 goals, 31 assists) in 82 games. Originally drafted by the Kings in the fifth round in 2012, Miller was acquired by Vegas in the expansion draft.
Marschessault ranked second on the Golden Knights with a +36 plus-minus rating while Reilly was third with a +31 plus-minus rating.
Vegas used five goaltenders through the regular season. Fleury, 33, led the group with 46 game appearances, posting a 29-13-4 record with a 2.24 goals-against average, four shutouts and a .927 save percentage.
Malcolm Subban, a first-round draft pick (24th overall) by Boston in 2012, appeared in 22 games with a 13-4-2 record, 2.68 GAA and a .910 save percentage.
Maxime Legace, called up from Chicago, appeared in 16 games with a 6-7-1 record, 3.92 GAA and .867 a save percentage.
Oscar Dansk, also called up from the Wolves, appeared in four games with a 3-0-0 record, 1.78 GAA, one shutout and a .946 save percentage.
Both Legace and Dansk have been returned to Chicago for the AHL playoffs. The Wolves face off the Calder Cup playoffs with an intra-state matchup April 21 against the Rockford IceHogs.
Vegas head coach Gerard Gallant called the series opener a “good, hard hockey game.”
“I thought it was a good playoff game with two tight teams playing real good hockey,” Gallant said when addressing the media on April 12. “I think it’s going to be a good-battled series. I don’t see any 6-0 games or 7-0 games, for sure. I see two teams that are going to start playing good, solid defensive hockey.
“I continue to tell my players to play our game. It’s playoff hockey, guys don’t want to make that mistake and they want to manage the puck real well. It’s a fine line. When you get a chance to make those plays, let’s make those plays. The goaltending is so good now you’ve got to go east-west a lot in the game today. Make your plays, make strong plays. If they don’t work, back-check real hard.
“Definitely. I thought we (did) a great job. I thought we minimized and didn’t make a whole lot of mistakes. I thought we had a lot of energy. A little bit in the third period I thought L.A. kind of took it to us a little bit. But overall, I thought we eliminated their scoring chances and played good, solid hockey.”
Gallant admitted both teams obviously had to deal with fatigue in Game 2.
“The longer you go, the more you get experience in that stuff,” Gallant explained during an off-day press conference on April 14. “When you’re a young coach all you want to do is practice. You think you have to skate them hard and make sure they’re ready. But it’s a grind, 82 games, a long training camp, so you have to try and balance it out.
“Really I try and trust my players. When they come to me and say listen we’re tired, we need a day off, usually I do that. When they say we need an optional skate, usually I do that. So I want them to be honest, and I trust them and they trust me.”
Gallant admitted he was relieved by the game-winning goal at the end of double overtime.
“It was getting late, it was getting long. I thought we played a great hockey game. Usually sometimes when that ends up happening you end up losing those games. We had an enormous amount of chances in overtime, and Jonathan Quick made some unbelievable saves. But it was a great hockey game again , and so far, it’s eight periods right now in the series have been real good.”
Gallant said he thought the players felt relief as well.
“Guys are starting to cramp up on both teams,” he said. “You’re eating as much food, and drinking as much water and Gatorade as you can to get your nutrients. So I’m sure both teams were glad it was over. Obviously we were glad it was over because we won it.”
Gallant noted that Theodore appeared to get stronger as Game 2 went on. “He’s a natural skater and some of those guys like Haula can really skate,” the Vegas coach said. “That’s a big advantage for those guys all the time.”
Vegas, playing with a balance of depth and speed, entered the playoffs with the NHL’s fifth-ranked offense and eighth-rated defense.
Stay tuned. More history could be in the making for the Golden Knights.
LaDue’s lone goal in Game 2 was assisted by teammates Dion Phaneuf and Mike Amadio.
LaDue and Amadio spent a significant amount of time with the Kings’ AHL affiliate this season. In 36 games with the Ontario Reign, LaDue collected eight goals and 18 points to go with a +8 plus-minus rating while Amadio ranked fifth in Reign scoring with 35 points (11 goals, 24 assists) in 32 games to go with a +15 plus-minus rating.
Quick has a 1.17 GAA and .964 save percentage in two playoff appearances.
The Kings were without defenseman Drew Doughty in Game 2 after Doughty served a one game suspension handed down by the league for an illegal hit to the head on VGK wing William Carrier in Game 1.
Add Stanley Cup playoffs
This year’s NHL playoffs could offer some surprises. All eight playoff series have started — two of the lower-seeded teams came up with victories in Game 1 and one more lower-seeded team posted a win in Game 2 of its series.
The third-seeded Sharks shut out the second-seeded Ducks, 3-0, on April 12 to take a 1-0 lead in their series. Evander Kane, obtained in a late season trade with the Buffalo Sabres, scored two goals in his first trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs in more than eight years in the league.
Brent Burns scored the other goal while Martin Jones stopped 25 shots to record the shutout win and hand the Bay Area team home ice advantage for the remainder of the series.
San Jose won Game 2 by a 3-2 score on April 14. Marcus Sorensen, Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl each scored goals for the Sharks, who rallied from an early 1-0 deficit on a goal just 40 seconds into the game by Anaheim’s Jakob Silfverberg.
Sorensen appeared in 23 games for Calder Cup-bound AHL San Jose Barracuda in 2017-18, recording seven goals and 18 points.
Hampus Lindholm led the Ducks with a goal and assist in Game 2. He tallied in the third period to trim Anaheim’s deficit on the scoreboard to one goal.
Martin Jones stopped 28 of 30 shots he faced (.933 save percentage) to pick up the win while John Gibson stopped 32 of 35 shots (.914 save percentage) in taking the loss. In two games to start the series, Jones sports a 1.00 GAA and a .964 save percentage.
This is the first time the two California teams have met in the Stanley Cup playoffs since 2009.
The soon-to-be Las Vegas Raiders drew the ire of Bay Area hockey fans by tweeting congratulations to the Golden Knights instead of the Sharks for the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Sharks’ response: Just win, baby!
More Stanley Cup playoffs
The two other playoff series in the Western Conference include Nashville against the Colorado Avalanche and the reborn Winnipeg Jets against the Minnesota Wild. Both the Jets and Predators took 2-0 leads in their respective series.
The four Eastern Conference playoff series pit the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia Flyers, Tampa Bay Lightning and New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Lighting and Bruins both lead their respective series 2-0 while Pittsburgh leads Philadelphia 2-1. The Blue Jackets upset the Capitals in Game 1.
The Stanley Cup playoffs feature four rounds. National television carriers include NBC-TV, NBCSN, CNBC, USA and the NHL Network.
The NHL Awards are scheduled for June 20 in Las Vegas. The 2018 NHL Draft is scheduled for June 22-23 in Dallas.
Photos/Eric J. Fowler
— Phillip Brents
(April 15, 2018)