Throughout the organization, the Vegas Golden Knights will surely tell you that they haven’t accomplished anything until the playoffs roll around. And yet, the question is one worth asking: is this the best regular season of their still-young franchise history? With just five games left in their 56-game 2020-21 season, signs clearly point to this strange, pandemic-influenced NHL campaign as being the Knights’ best.
Let’s quickly point to the obvious here. Under normal circumstances, the fourth season of an expansion franchise probably should be a high-water mark. Of course, that assumes franchise beginnings far more inauspicious than the 96 points that the club has averaged across their first three years of existence, highlighted by a 109-point expansion campaign that produced more points than the all-time franchise-best mark of six other organizations (Toronto Maple Leafs, LA Kings, Florida Panthers, Columbus Blue Jackets, Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes and Minnesota Wild).
Winning at a High Rate
Even after a Monday night collapse in Minnesota that saw them allow two goals in the final 90 seconds to lose 6-5, Vegas boasts a .725% points percentage that, if it holds up, would be the club’s highest by a whopping 60 points. If you extrapolate their production to date across a normal, 82-game season, the Golden Knights would be on pace for 118 points.
And it’s not like Vegas is eking out wins, either. They currently own a +57 goal differential on the season (173 goals for, 116 goals against), the best mark in team history if it holds up, and the best in the NHL this season. They’ve actually won twice as many games by three-plus goals (14) as they’ve lost by more than one (seven).
Playing Up to Expectation
The expansion season will always stand out for just how remarkable and unprecedented it was, as a no-name group of literal cast-offs marched all the way to the Stanley Cup Final (especially as an incoming Seattle Kraken franchise hopes to follow the same blueprint). That team, of course, was buoyed by William Karlsson’s 43-goal campaign, 29 goals from Erik Haula and a slew of personal bests from players with newfound roles and responsibilities.
No offense to that talented group, but this squad’s output feels, in some ways, less flukey. Yes, Marc-Andre Fleury has turned back the clock and served up a Vezina-worthy effort in the season following numerous reported attempts to ship him out of town. Beyond that, though, the club’s individual stats are made up less of eye-popping career-highs and more of talented players performing within their expectant range.
You can construct two lines of forwards that have already posted double digital goal totals for Vegas, with Reilly Smith set to join that group so long as he scores again before the season’s out. More impressive is a blue line that has produced 128 points despite featuring big-ticket free-agent acquisition Alex Pietrangelo, who has been slowed by injuries and under-performance. As a comparable, the team’s 2019-20 defensive unit managed just five more points in 20 more games.
Still Getting Pushed
Incredibly, even as they boast these superlative numbers to highlight their 2020-21 dominance, nothing apart from a playoff spot has been assured. The Colorado Avalanche and Wild are keeping lockstep with their Honda West Division rivals, meaning that the Golden Knights aren’t in a position to take their foot off the gas over the final five games.
For all that is made over how many bad teams occupy the West Division (the Golden Knights do, to be fair, own a 30-6-2 record against the Arizona Coyotes, St. Louis Blues, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks), the group’s upper tier is imposing. Under normal circumstances, Vegas, Colorado and Minnesota would own the top three records in the entire Western Conference.
That’s what makes the next five games so critical, even as we highlight how great the season has been to date — the Golden Knights aren’t in the clear yet. If they continue to falter as they did on Monday, a playoff series against the Wild or even the Avalanche could await instead of a far more favorable clash that would likely come against the Blues.
So no, the Knights are clearly not to sit back and pat themselves on the back for a job well done — not with more ambitious goals ahead. But still, Vegas’ effort in a challenging, unique season is worth noting, not to mention measuring up against their celebrated work of season’s past. And now, the real fun begins.
I may be a Leafs fan at heart (I’ve witnessed their highs and lows first-hand as a Scotiabank Arena employee), but I’m also a veteran freelance sportswriter who loves a good story. And there’s been no better story in hockey over the past few years than the Vegas Golden Knights. I’m excited to be covering the NHL again on the Golden Knights’ beat.