Monday, April 17, 2023 | 2 a.m.
For a team that finished atop the Western Conference in the regular season and set a franchise record with 111 points, the Vegas Golden Knights aren’t getting much respect heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Only three teams in the entire NHL finished ahead of Vegas in the standings, but as many as 10 are trendier championship picks as the postseason gets underway tonight. Even locally, the feverish energy that has accompanied past playoff berths — especially in the inaugural year, the last full season when the Golden Knights won the Pacific Division — has been replaced with more of a malaise this time around.
There are surely exceptions heading into Game 1 of Vegas’ first-round series against the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday night at T-Mobile Arena, but for the most part, everyone seems to expect this postseason to end poorly. Concerns about the Golden Knights’ roster and overall statistical profile are valid, but it’s time for Vegas fans to cheer up and get pumped up. It’s not every year a team makes the playoffs — a perspective they should have after the franchise’s first-ever miss a year ago — so it would be a shame not to enjoy it while it’s here.
Anything can happen in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the West’s top-seeded Golden Knights are set up better than almost every team perceived to be superior to them.
Here are five reasons to skip past skepticism and believe in Vegas’ potential to make a deep playoff run.
1. The wide-open Western Conference
The Golden Knights would be a tougher sell if they were slotted into their equivalent position in the Eastern Conference. Having to top the Florida Panthers, either the Toronto Maple Leafs or Tampa Bay Lightning, and then most likely the Carolina Hurricanes or New Jersey Devils to reach the Stanley Cup Final would be an incredibly tall task.
Their actual path of the Jets, either the Edmonton Oilers or Los Angeles Kings, and then most likely the Colorado Avalanche or Dallas Stars is much more manageable. The East looks like an American Ninja Warrior gauntlet compared with the West’s intermediate obstacle course.
No one really separated from the Western Conference pack all year for a reason: They’re all flawed. The eventual East champion is going to be forged through flames — the betting market has six of the top seven teams coming out of the conference. The West’s counterpart will just need to walk across a few hot coals.
2. Home-ice advantage
Vegas is neck-in-neck with Colorado for having the largest home-ice advantage in the NHL according to the betting market. That’s easy to forget after the Golden Knights had some strange midseason struggles at T-Mobile Arena this year, but they’ve put those behind them anyway.
The Golden Knights are 11-2-1 at home since the All-Star Break. A big part of their Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2018 was an invincibility at “the Fortress,” where they went 6-1 against Western Conference opponents.
Don’t rule out another such run this year. Better yet, help ensure it happens by showing up and showing out.
T-Mobile Arena can smother opponents when it’s at full capacity and full volume.
3. Coach Cassidy’s scheme
No matter how well Laurent Brossoit is playing — and he’s playing the best hockey of his career — Vegas is not going to have an advantage in net against Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck. Heck, they quite possibly might not have a goaltending advantage in any potential series all playoffs.
And, perhaps this is hockey heresy given the history of great goalies leading teams to Stanley Cup victories, but it might not matter. There’s a reason why virtually everyone Vegas stuck in front of the net this season looked better than ever before, and that reason is Cassidy’s shot blocking-heavy zone defense.
Not only could the strategy continue to pay dividends in the postseason; it could work even better. All things considered, Cassidy was pretty successful in the playoffs while with the Boston Bruins with six series wins in six years.
He never brought home the ultimate prize, but came within one game in 2019 when the St. Louis Blues upset his tough-minded Bruins’ team that’s not entirely unlike this year’s Golden Knights.
4. Injuries clearing up
If Brossoit doesn’t prove up to the task of being “the guy” in the first-round series against his former team or even later in the playoffs, at least the Golden Knights have a strong insurance policy in backup Adin Hill. That wasn’t the case for the last month when Hill was out with a lower-body injury but he’s healthy now, and he’s not the only Golden Knight who seems to be in better shape heading into the playoffs.
Stars Jack Eichel and Shea Theodore also returned from missing time in the final regular season game, a 3-1 win at Seattle to lock up the top seed. Oh, and captain Mark Stone is back skating after undergoing back surgery in January.
Injuries severely handicapped the Golden Knights during certain stretches throughout the season, but their overall health is trending upwards now. Luck is an underrated part of any postseason run, and the Golden Knights might be benefiting from some with an influx of important pieces coming back at the right time.
5. Jack Eichel’s potential superstar turn
After eight seasons, the 26-year-old Eichel will be making his playoff debut and players of his caliber oftentimes have another gear they discover when stakes are at their highest. It wouldn’t be smart to rule out Eichel finding such form this postseason.
Past Golden Knights’ playoff runs have fallen short in large part because of a lack of a go-to scorer to pull them out of offensive ruts. Eichel could fill that void this time around.
He hasn’t consistently played at that level all season, but there have been flashes and spurts where his talent has won out and he’s taken over. If Eichel gets into that rhythm for the postseason, watch out.
The Golden Knights might already be more dangerous than advertised, but there are scenarios where they could really take off in the playoffs.