A nerve-wracking final push for the playoffs is upon the Vegas Golden Knights with only ten regular-season games left. To be clear, this won’t be the same crushing disappointment of 2021-22. At this time last season, Vegas was on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. This season, they still reign – however narrowly – atop the Pacific Division and enjoy a decent-sized cushion among the Western Conference postseason participants.
Still, there’s plenty to be decided on between now and season’s end. The Golden Knights sit just four points up on the Los Angeles Kings for the division lead and six points ahead of the lurking Edmonton Oilers and their 60-goal man, Connor McDavid, with their two chief division rivals not surrendering much ground down the stretch. Furthermore, the remaining schedule features six more games against Pacific foes, including a massive home-and-home against Edmonton.
Tight division and wild-card races mean that numerous postseason scenarios still exist, including ones where Vegas misses out entirely. However, that’s highly unlikely, so let’s instead focus on what might await the Golden Knights in the playoffs. Here is your guide to the club’s possible first-round opponent and the challenges they present:
Despite their tenuous division lead, the Golden Knights would have the best record in the West if the season ended today, which would put them on a collision course to play the back-pedaling Winnipeg Jets, who own a 7-10-2 record dating back to mid-February.
For much of this season, the Jets looked a lot like Vegas: a talented roster looking refreshed, improved, and dangerous under the watch of a new head coach (Rick Bowness). More recently, though, the wheels have come off. Connor Hellebuyck is posting some of his worst numbers of the season and a core that was already plagued by chemistry and leadership questions has not risen to the occasion.
On paper, the Jets should pose a tricky playoff match-up for the Golden Knights. They boast a clear advantage in net and should feature the better forward corps, particularly if Winnipeg native Mark Stone isn’t ready to return to the Vegas line-up. However, this group isn’t scaring anyone right now after spending the past two months playing at a level that is hardly playoff-caliber.
A battle of the expansion franchises would be the most obvious narrative should the Golden Knights and Seattle Kraken meet in the first round of the playoffs. The Kraken are currently sitting in the first wild-card slot, but the most important comparison between the two clubs is their similarly balanced rosters.
Led by Jared McCann’s 34 goals, Seattle boasts 12 players with at least 30 points this season. Without a single 60-point scorer to date, they rank fifth league-wide in goals scored per game. Such a balanced attack up front can present defensive challenges; however, those could be mitigated by Vegas’ defensive depth.
Yes, Seattle is good offensively, but keeping the puck out of their own net has been a problem. The blue line remains thin, and success has come in spite of their goaltending tandem of Philipp Grubauer and Martin Jones, not because of them. These weaknesses haven’t kept the Kraken out of the playoff hunt, but they will be serious red flags come playoff time.
Los Angeles Kings
As soon as the Golden Knights acquired Jonathan Quick to provide playoff-proven goaltending insurance at the trade deadline, many quickly anticipated the tantalizing possibility of a playoff series pitting Quick against the Los Angeles Kings. Although a Kings vs. Oilers first-round series remains far more likely, the notion of the former Conn Smythe winner facing the club he spent 16 seasons with isn’t dead in the water.
The division rivalry between Vegas and Los Angeles means that tensions will be high regardless of the Quick factor. If you recall, the Kings were the very first postseason victims of the 2017-18 Golden Knights, getting swept in the first round of the expansion club’s march to the Stanley Cup Final. Seeing Quick and Alec Martinez, two key 2014 Stanley Cup heroes for LA, on Vegas’ side will only increase the bad blood between the teams.
Quick versus LA would be an exciting storyline, but a series between the teams likely wouldn’t be decided by a depth goalie (although Logan Thompson’s injury status may say otherwise). The Kings continue to be anchored by their veterans, as off-season addition Kevin Fiala has joined Anze Kopitar and Adrian Kempe among the club’s scoring leaders, while Drew Doughty has rebounded from an injury-marred 2021-22 campaign to play 70 games and sit second league-wide in average ice time. The club has also turned to journeyman Pheonix Copley in net.
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Years before he was traded to the Golden Knights, Jack Eichel was drafted second overall by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, which raises the question, whatever happened to the player who went first? Of course, we all know that McDavid has cemented himself as the best player in hockey, producing eye-popping numbers not seen since the days of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. This season, he’s posted a remarkable 60 goals and 138 points.
Yet, even with McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in tow, the Oilers are not unstoppable. They are in tough to move past the Kings and secure home ice advantage while also being chased by the Kraken. Furthermore, the club has won just three playoff series over McDavid’s seven NHL seasons. As the Colorado Avalanche showed in sweeping Edmonton in last season’s Western Conference Final, they can be undone with grit and physicality.
While goaltending remains a question mark, the deadline addition of Mattias Ekholm has upped the Oilers’ defensive toughness. They are a team with obvious high-end talent that has done well to address other holes in the roster, although they will still have plenty to prove in the postseason.
Amidst a wide-open Western Conference playoff field, all possible playoff match-ups present their own challenges, but all would be winnable for Vegas. Armed with a veteran-laden roster and a playoff-proven head coach, the postseason offers a real opportunity. First, though, the Golden Knights have to make sure they get there.