The ’12 Days of Christmas’ is a classic holiday song first published in its current form in 1908. In a nod to the classic carol, join The Hockey Writers as we count down the 12 Days of Hockeymas. Each day, we will provide you with a piece of hockey history as we eagerly await the start of the 2020-21 NHL season.
The five playoff series that the Vegas Golden Knights have won in their three years of existence need to be put into context. No, I don’t mean expansion context – the Knights are unprecedented in that regard. Those numbers put Vegas in incredibly rare company among the NHL’s elite even with no consideration given to franchise lineage (or lack thereof).
Of the league’s 31 teams, only one – the reigning Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning – has more postseason victories over that same period (the Boston Bruins also have five). On the other end of the spectrum, you can find 20 other NHL clubs who have amassed five series triumphs in that time frame – total. The Winnipeg Jets / Arizona Coyotes franchise has managed just four series wins in their 41-year existence, while the Florida Panthers last won a single playoff round in 1996.
All those playoff wins have yet to manifest themselves in a championship for the Golden Knights, but they have built the narrative of a wildly successful organization. Before a Stanley Cup coronation can leave all other playoff journeys in the rearview mirror (except for the expansion trip to the Cup Final), let’s take a closer look at each of those triumphant postseason clashes.
2018 First Round vs LAK
If there were any questions about Vegas growing complacent by simply making the playoffs in their first year of existence, it didn’t take long for those to be put to rest. Coming in as the second seed in the West and the Pacific Division winner, the Golden Knights ran roughshod over their geographic rival, the aging Los Angeles Kings, for a 4-0 sweep.
The series allowed the Knights to flex some defensive muscle, allowing just three goals in a four-game series that set an NHL record for fewest goals scored in a best-of-seven playoff match-up. Marc-Andre Fleury recorded two shutouts and former King Brayden McNabb got a measure of revenge for being left unprotected by LA as he scored the only goal in the 1-0 Game 4 clincher.
2018 Second Round vs SJS
By the time the Golden Knights opened their second round series against the San Jose Sharks with a 7-0 drubbing, it’s fair to say that no one was doubting the expansion club anymore. The series opened with Vegas being boosted by seven different goal scorers while Fleury had time to record another shutout and take part in the wave.
It wouldn’t be that easy the whole way along, however. The two teams split a pair of overtime results in Games 2 and 3 before San Jose shut Vegas out to even the series. From there, Vegas got their offense in gear for a 5-3 Game 5 win and closed things out with yet another blanking by Fleury, making 28 saves in a 3-0 win. But that wouldn’t be the last these two teams would see of each other in the postseason, with San Jose triumphing in a memorable 2019 second-round series marred by a controversial and costly Game 7 call.
2018 Conference Final vs WPG
History was guaranteed to be made in the 2018 Western Conference Final, as the expansion Knights were facing a fellow first-time Conference finalist in the Jets. Whether you look at the history of the franchise that relocated from Atlanta to Winnipeg or the two different iterations of the Winnipeg Jets, the run was unprecedented.
And for one game, anyway, it looked like Winnipeg’s magic would carry forth. A 4-2 Game 1 home victory by the Jets left Vegas trailing for the first time in the postseason, but it wouldn’t last. Led by Fleury’s consistency in net and Jonathan Marchessault’s four goals, the Golden Knights would win the next four games to continue their Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup Final.
2020 First Round vs CHI
It certainly goes without saying that the 2019-20 NHL season was a weird one, and the Golden Knights were not exempt from that weirdness. On the ice, they struggled through an uneven season and a coaching change, needing an eight-game win streak and a 3-0 round robin record to eke their way to the top of the West. Then there was, of course, the Edmonton bubble, which negated the significant home ice advantage they enjoyed, going 9-4 at T-Mobile Arena across the previous two postseasons.
Still, Vegas managed to put aside all distractions and take care of the Chicago Blackhawks, who had upset the “host” Edmonton Oilers in the Qualifying Round, in five games. With former Blackhawk Robin Lehner between the pipes for all but one game of the series, Reilly Smith scored three goals including the Game 2 overtime winner and the tough Knights’ defense kept Chicago below 30 shots in each game.
2020 Second Round vs VAN
Coming off of an upset over the defending champion St. Louis Blues, the Vancouver Canucks gave Vegas all they could handle in the second round. After the Golden Knights built up a commanding 3-1 series lead, the Canucks turned to rookie netminder Thatcher Demko, who singlehandedly brought Vancouver back by making 90 saves on 91 shots over Games 5 and 6 to force a Game 7.
Staring down another Game 7 might have brought back unpleasant memories of the 2019 Sharks series for Vegas players, but instead of crumbling, they willed themselves to victory. Lehner faced just 14 shots thanks to the stingy defensive effort in front of him and Vegas finally broke through when a third-period Shea Theodore goal ended a drought of 138:40. The Knights added two empty netters for insurance for a 3-0 Game 7 triumph.
Now, while it doesn’t fit the ‘five’ theme of this article, the Golden Knights have been equally defined by their playoff losses. They saw what it took to hoist the Cup in losing to the Washington Capitals, suffered through the heartbreak of a dramatic Game 7 ousting at the hands of the Sharks and couldn’t handle the streaking Dallas Stars this past September. All of it adds up to an incredibly impressive foundation for the organization. And who knows, maybe soon we’ll be talking about this playoff history as the lead-up for the club’s eventual crowning as Stanley Cup champions.
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.