Golden Knights Are the Team to Beat in the Western Conference

The Vegas Golden Knights beat the Winnipeg Jets in the First Round in a short five-game series to advance to the Second Round. They lost Game 1 on their home ice 5-1 but otherwise were in control of the series. The Golden Knights won four games in a row by a combined score of 18-9 to become the first team to advance to the Second Round.

Winnipeg Jets Vegas Golden Knights Handshake Line
Blake Wheeler of the Winnipeg Jets shakes hands with the Vegas Golden Knights after being defeated in Game 5 of the First Round of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs (Photo by Candice Ward/Getty Images)

The Golden Knights finished the regular season with a 51-22-9 record, which was the best in the Pacific Division and the Western Conference. The surprise with them being the best team in the Western Conference is that they aren’t particularly great in any facet of the game. The offense averaged 3.26 goals per game, 14th best in the league, while the defense allowed only 2.74 goals per game, 11th best in the league. Along with the middle-of-the-pack offense and defense, both their power play and penalty kill are below league average. It’s easy to overlook the Golden Knights and think of them as an average team, but they have been great all season.

Granted, a lot of their success this year can be attributed to a weak conference, and specifically a weak division. The Golden Knights went 14-9-3 against their division and 6-2-2 against the Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks, and Vancouver Canucks, three of the worst teams in the NHL.

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However, aside from taking advantage of their schedule, they never stumbled at any point in the season, with their longest losing streak only being four games in late January before the all-star break. Their consistency helped them secure the best record in the conference, and their roster is built to win the Cup for the first time in their young franchise’s history.

Golden Knights Have Stars but Also Depth

The Golden Knights have a top-heavy roster, and their salary cap reflects that as well. Three skaters — Jack Eichel, Mark Stone, and Alex Pietrangelo — take up $28.3 Million of the team’s salary cap. For comparison, the Boston Bruins, who won the Presidents’ Trophy with a historic regular season, have their five highest-paid players under contract below that cap number at only $26.6 Million. The Golden Knights have invested heavily in their star players and expect a few skaters to be able to carry them not only to the playoffs but to a Cup as well. Eichel, Stone, and Pietrangelo aren’t the best players in the league, but they have carried the team this year.

Jack Eichel Vegas Golden Knights
Jack Eichel, Vegas Golden Knights (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Stone has dealt with injuries throughout the season, but Eichel had a great season. He scored 27 goals and 39 assists and emerged as the top-line center the Golden Knights hoped he’d become when they acquired him from the Buffalo Sabres last year. Eichel’s skating ability particularly stands out as he can often bail out the offense when it struggles with a big goal, especially in space or on the rush.

On the defensive end of the ice, Pietrangelo has been an excellent two-way defenseman. He leads the unit with his playmaking from the point, scoring 11 goals and 43 assists this season. But he’s also been great defensively, with 4.4 defensive point shares and 177 blocked shots. Moreover, Pietrangelo played at another level in the First Round, leading the team with 25:53 ice time per game and five assists from the blue line to help lead the team to an easy series victory over the Jets.

Alex Pietrangelo Vegas Golden Knights
Alex Pietrangelo, Vegas Golden Knights (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Golden Knights have star power in their forward and defensive units but learned last year that depth is vital to success. Last season, the roster was riddled with injuries, and the long absences of their elite players particularly left them in shambles as they missed the playoffs for the first time in team history. This year, the Golden Knights not only found depth players but have seen them contribute in every facet of the game.

Michael Amadio, who was claimed off waivers last year, scored 16 goals and 11 assists this season and scored the game-winning goal in double overtime of Game 3, allowing the Golden Knights to beat the Jets 5-4 and take a 2-1 series lead. Twelve skaters scored ten goals or more, allowing the Golden Knights to consistently play multiple potent forward lines. Defensively, Brayden McNabb, Shea Theodore, and Alec Martinez have rounded out the unit to give the Golden Knights multiple great pairings.

The Golden Knights reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2018, their inaugural season in the NHL, with a roster built on depth. While the team is now carried by star players, contributions from the entire roster have been an integral part of their success.

A Balanced Roster

Under former head coach Pete DeBoer, the Golden Knights were an offensive-minded team. They had great defenses, including the 2020-21 one that allowed a league-low 2.18 goals per game with the help of Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. However, on the offensive end of the ice, and the team always played a faster, more aggressive style than their opponents.

Pete DeBoer Vegas Golden Knights
Pete DeBoer, former head coach of the Vegas Golden Knights (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Last year, the offensive emphasis was part of the team’s downfall as the Golden Knights stumbled and missed the playoffs. The defense allowed 3.08 goals per game in the second half of the season, and the struggles resulted in DeBoer’s firing in the offseason.

With a new head coach behind the bench after Bruce Cassidy was hired, the Golden Knights play a more balanced style. While they don’t have a top-10 offense or defense, they are reliable on both ends of the ice and proved throughout the season they can win in a variety of ways. The Golden Knights have won 6-5 high-octane offensive games while also winning the 2-1 low-scoring defensive battles. Ultimately, the balance allowed them to secure the best record in the Western Conference as they could adapt to any opponent that they faced.

Bruce Cassidy Vegas Golden Knights
Bruce Cassidy, Head Coach of the Vegas Golden Knights (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

One of the important attributes of a Stanley Cup team is the ability to win in a multitude of ways. When the game speeds up, slows down, gets physical, or chaotic, great teams can adapt and win that type of game. The Golden Knights proved throughout the season that they could do that, and after advancing to the Second Round, they hope their adaptability can carry them to the Cup.

What Can Lead to the Golden Knights’ Elimination

As a star-led team, the Golden Knights have been the team to beat in the Western Conference. However, they are one injury away from falling apart. The depth has stepped up, but they are held together by four or five players. If Stone, who dealt with injuries all season, suffers another setback or if one of the elite players has a disappointing series, the Golden Knights will likely be eliminated.

The Golden Knights can also run into issues if they face a team that can dictate how the series is played out. The Jets were an average team in the second half of the season and barely made the playoffs as a wild card team, making them an easy team to defeat. The Golden Knights will face the Edmonton Oilers or the Los Angeles Kings in the Second Round, two teams with great offenses that can dare them to win multiple high-scoring games.

The Golden Knights have been tested all season and never fell into a slump. However, the next round will determine if they are contenders or a team that took advantage of a weak schedule all season.

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