As of Thursday afternoon, the Vegas Golden Knights are one of four undefeated teams in the National Hockey League.
I know, it doesn’t seem real to me either. Maybe the league should hold an expansion draft every year. The Golden Knights keep finding ways to win. They’re three for three in franchise history, and with the Detroit Red Wings coming to town, four for four is a distinct possibility.
Drink it in Vegas fans, who knows how long it is going to last? I wouldn’t save for playoff tickets just yet, but the squad general manager George McPhee has cobbled together is certainly more than just competitive. They’re going to win some games, and if you’ve had the opportunity to watch the Golden Knights so far this season, you can tell the team is already getting better playing together. Here are the three keys to Vegas picking up its fourth victory in as many tries.
More Magic from Marc-Andre Fleury
In my completely biased opinion, as of the second week in October, Marc-Andre Fleury is the NHL’s top netminder.
We knew the formula for any modicum of success the Golden Knights could muster this season before the puck dropped on the 2017-18 campaign. It was expected that scoring would be hard to come by. Competent defense and Marc-Andre Fleury playing to the level he showcased five or six years would be essential. Between the pipes, Flower has done that, and then some.
As the season drew near, Fleury was expected to yield plenty of time in net to Calvin Pickard, the Vegas expansion draft acquisition from the Colorado Avalanche. Today, Pickard is with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Malcolm Subban is the number two in net for the Golden Knights. By a wide margin, it would seem. Subban’s an unfinished product, with a grand total of two NHL games under his belt. For better or worse, Fleury’s getting all of the work for a while.
And it’s for better. The face of the franchise has turned back 103 of the 107 shots he’s seen on the young season. As of Thursday, twenty goaltenders have seen action in at least three games. Fleury’s .963 save percentage is second to only Corey Crawford of the Chicago Blackhawks. It would be hopelessly optimistic for Vegas fans to expect Fleury to maintain his torrid pace. But we’ll take another Flowery performance against a Detroit team that’s squeezing off just 28 shots per game through three contests.
Cracking the Detroit Penalty Kill
This one will be a tougher task on Friday night. Vegas is not yet particularly adept at the power play. Detroit, on the other hand, is among the league’s elite at exhausting the man advantage.
The Golden Knights special team deficit is one that was well documented during the preseason. Teemu Pulkkinen logged a power-play goal on Sep 24 against Anaheim in Vegas’ fourth exhibition matchup. What followed was exceptional by any measure, expansion team or otherwise. The Knights burned through the next 32 such opportunities, including 11 in the regular season, before James Neal finally broke the hex in Tuesday’s 5-2 home opening win over Arizona.
Droughts like that should cause concern at any time. That concern is amplified with a penalty kill unit playing as well as the Red Wings’ comes to town. Detroit has snuffed out 13 of 14 power play chances so far this season, good for sixth in the league. Some Wings fans will tell you that’s not because of, rather in spite of those playing on the Detroit blue-line. Either way what’s not in debate is who is the most important piece of that puzzle. Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard is the straw that stirs the penalty-killing potion.
Dare I say, he’s playing near Marc-Andre Fleury level in net. Entering Thursday’s game with Arizona, Howard’s .961 save percentage and 1.44 goals against average rank right behind Fleury. Offensively, Friday night’s meeting may not fill up the stat sheet. If Vegas can break the Detroit penalty kill just once, 4-0 may be a real possibility.
Transitioning to Normal
There’s not a right way to say this. The Golden Knights still have to figure out how to be a hockey team in Las Vegas.
Tuesday night’s home opener was unlike any event the NHL will ever see again. Unspeakable tragedy struck southern Nevada nine days before the Golden Knights christened T-Mobile Arena. Vegas earned a 5-2 victory over the Coyotes in an emotionally charged environment that had more to do with community than hockey.
In that way, Friday’s game will look more like a traditional home opener than Tuesday’s historic game did. In fact, Golden Knights owner Bill Foley rescheduled some of the events to happen Tuesday and the week prior so that victims and first responders could be properly recognized prior to the event. We’ll see some of those things on Friday.
It has been a difficult couple of weeks for those of us in Las Vegas. Finding routine again hasn’t been easy. Every day feels a little more “normal,” though getting back to where we once were may not be a goal that can be achieved.
That said, we’re trying. Hockey isn’t as important as the things we’ve been dealing with. We know that. That evening was a life-changing event for all of us. Tuesday, too. And for many, it was a respite from the gigantic task of piecing the city back together. My wife is an emergency room nurse at the hospital closest to the incident. She was a hero that night. Just over a week later she thoroughly enjoyed herself at the home opener. That’s a good thing. Now she’s ready for some normal.
I have to think NHL players are the same way. We’ve been miles away from normal for what seems like years. That routine can be very comforting for many. To this point, the Golden Knights are unsure what that looks like in Las Vegas. Here’s hoping they find it sooner rather than later.
Las Vegas local covering Golden Knights hockey since 2016.
Ball State University ’05
Credentialed NBA writer covering the Phoenix Suns,
Credentialed NCAA football writer covering the UNLV Rebels