Tuesday night (Oct. 18) in Calgary could’ve been the start of a slippery slope for the Vegas Golden Knights after a 3-0 start to the season. They had built up a 2-0 lead against the reigning Pacific Division champion Calgary Flames, only to see that lead crumble thanks to penalties and an aggressive Flames attack. With the not-quite-yet-trusted Adin Hill scheduled to man the crease against the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday (Oct. 20), falling back to Earth a bit could be reasonably anticipated.
By toppling the Jets 5-2, the Golden Knights sent a message that they are built to last. After their 3-2 loss in Calgary, the club came out strong with four first-period goals, including two from Jack Eichel. Hill, meanwhile, stopped 26 of 28 shots to move to 2-0 as the de facto ‘1B’ goaltending option alongside Logan Thompson.
When you consider that the Golden Knights proceeded last year’s season-opening win with a four-game slide, winning four of the first five is a significant first step in what could be a make-or-break campaign for the franchise. With things looking up at the moment but tilts against the Colorado Avalanche and a five-game Eastern swing looming, it seems like a good time to look at some of the factors contributing to this hot start:
More Than Just Stone & Eichel on Offense
The Golden Knights have now scored 17 goals to date and gotten contributions from 11 different players. Apart from Eichel (three goals), Jonathan Marchessault (four) and William Karlsson (two), eight other Golden Knights have spread out the scoring with a goal apiece to date.
Those contributions have come from up and down the lineup. Along with the likes of Eichel and Mark Stone, Vegas has been boosted by the scoring contributions of depth players like William Carrier, Brett Howden, Keegan Kolesar and rookie Paul Cotter. Interestingly enough, injuries forced each of those aforementioned players into enhanced roles last season, so it’s notable to now see them thriving while filling more suitable slots amongst the forward corps.
Thompson & Hill Handling the Vegas Crease
Early concerns over stopping pucks are emerging in cities like Edmonton, Toronto and even Minnesota with our old friend Marc-André Fleury. In Vegas, the early showings from the admittedly piecemeal duo of Thompson and Hill have left little reason for worry. There still figures to be off nights for the two British Columbia natives, but both men have done well to earn the trust of management, fans and the team in front of them to this point.
As anticipated, Thompson has been the main guy between the pipes, starting three out of four games, including a 27-save shutout in the home opener against the Chicago Blackhawks. As of now, the 25-year-old sports a 2.03 goals-against average (GAA) and .938 save percentage (SV%), more impressive numbers than even his standout 19-game stint last season.
Meanwhile, head coach Bruce Cassidy showed he still intends to proceed with a tandem arrangement in net, which will require Hill to be on his game. So far, so good, as the 26-year-old now boasts nearly identical numbers to Thompson, with a 2.00 GAA and a .934 SV%.
Even league-average goaltending would’ve been an acceptable result at this juncture, given the disastrous ramifications of Robin Lehner’s hip surgery announcement, coupled with the fact that the Golden Knights boast plenty of talent in front of their crease. What the club has gotten from Thompson and Hill to date, though has been elite goaltending.
Healthy Golden Knights Tighten Up Defensively
For all the name talent on the Vegas blue line, the defensive corps simply wasn’t very good last year. Of course, injuries played a major role, but that’s what the much-lauded depth of the back end was supposed to be for, not to mention the help of a defensively-sound group of two-way forwards. Instead, the team allowed 2.98 goals per game, good for 15th in the league and the franchise’s highest mark in their existence.
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This season, foundational backend pieces like Alex Pietrangelo, Alec Martinez, Shea Theodore and Brayden McNabb are all healthy, and the results speak for themselves. The Golden Knights currently sit tied for second league-wide in fewest goals allowed per game, averaging just two. As is always the case with this type of stat, it’s impossible to know where the defensive contributions end and the goaltending contributions begin, but the performance of both has made the team tough to play against.
The best news about the Golden Knights’ encouraging start is how sustainable it all feels. Okay, so no one knows if the young, inexperienced netminders can maintain this level of play all season. Other than that, though, all four forward lines are producing without anyone carrying too much of the load and the back end in minutes is not out of line with what they should expect to see the rest of the way.
Will Vegas keep up the early success? Who knows, but there’s certainly something to be excited about here.