The Golden Knights have reestablished themselves at the apex of the Pacific Division, despite early season mediocrity. Showing no signs of slowing down, Vegas looks like contenders once again.
Entering play Jan. 15, the Golden Knights had lost four consecutive games and were a subpar 4-6-0 in their previous ten. Still, it was a shock when the team announced they would be parting ways with head coach Gerard Gallant. Afterall, Gallant lead the Golden Knights to a Stanley Cup appearance in the franchise’s inaugural season, as well as a seven-game series vs the Sharks in their second year.
An overreaction? Perhaps. With 54 points, Vegas was jockeying for position with a handful of other teams for a wild card spot in the West. However, they were averaging just 3.02 goals per game (tied for 16th in the league) and were allowing 3.04 (15th).
While their underlying metrics were solid — sporting a 53.5 Corsi For percentage according to Hockey Reference — this wasn’t translating to success on the ice. Wishing to avoid a season derailing skid, the team pivoted to Peter DeBoer. Much has been said about the shortsightedness of this move, but at least for now, it seems to be paying off.
Righting the ship
Since bringing in DeBoer, Vegas has rattled off an impressive 13-4-2 record, good for fourth in the NHL during that span. This stretch has not only elevated them to the top of their division, but put them near the top of the list of Stanley Cup contenders. According to MoneyPuck’s model, the Golden Knights have the second-best chance to win it all at 11.6 percent.
It’s not just smoke and mirrors. Under DeBoer, they’ve seen their goals per game skyrocket to 3.58 — just second to the red-hot Flyers — and their goals against per game dip down to just 2.68. The Golden Knights have significantly out-chanced teams, rocking a 55.9 Corsi for percentage according to Hockey Reference, and a plus-8.2 shot differential per game.
The league’s newest squad is looking like a contender once again.
Not everything has improved under DeBoer. The Golden Knights are 11th in the league on the power play this season with a conversion rate of 21.4 percent, while their penalty kill is a rotten 77.1 percent, 23rd in the NHL.
But the Golden Knights made a few moves at the deadline to address at least half of the special teams battle. General manager Kelly McCrimmon added veteran defenseman Alec Martinez, forward Nick Cousins and goalie Robin Lehner to the mix. Cousins should add some depth scoring to the bottom of the Vegas lineup and has also spent time as a penalty killer during his stints in Philly, Arizona and Montreal.
Though Martinez gets bad wrap nowadays for being somewhat of a plug, he still managed to keep a positive Corsi in Los Angeles and has elevated it to nearly 54 percent since joining Vegas. While his PDO is bound to come crashing back down (109 since joining Vegas) he should still be able to make a difference on the Golden Knights’ power play and allow them to lean on Shea Theodore more at even-strength.
Lehner should provide the biggest aid their ailing penalty kill. Lehner’s sparkling .923 save percentage while his team is shorthanded is first in the league among goalies who have played at least 20 games. That’s significantly higher than Marc-Andre Fleury‘s .853 this season. Besides making them better on the kill, it can be argued that the addition of Lehner gives the Golden Knights the best goalie tandem in the league — something that bodes well for the end of the season.
Smooth sailing from here on out
With just a month remaining in the season, the Golden Knights will look to extend their lead over the rest of the Pacific Division. Earlier this week, the league published their “Strength of Schedule” list for the remainder of the season. According to the list, Vegas has the 10th easiest schedule the rest of the way, facing a .544 opponent point percentage. Edmonton and Calgary — their primary competition for the division lead — have the 12th and 13th most difficult remaining schedules.
After some hiccups through the first few months of the season, the Golden Knights have regained the form we’ve come to expect from them during their first two seasons.
With a coaching change that drew much skepticism now paying dividends, a newfound knack for scoring, key additions to their blueline and in net and a schedule that get easier from here on out, Vegas is primed to strengthen their grip on the Pacific Division and join the exclusive list of Stanely Cup contenders.
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