The world was so different five and a half months ago. The COVID-19 pandemic hadn’t yet sent North America into lockdown. Sports leagues were operating normally. “Wear a mask” was something you might say at Halloween.
Also: the Vegas Golden Knights still lost the occasional hockey game in those days. The Winnipeg Jets shut them out 4-0 on March 6.
Everything has changed worldwide since then. We’ve grown accustomed to social distancing, home schooling and sports played in bubbles with no fans. Meanwhile, the Golden Knights have also ascended to…invincibility?
The Chicago Blackhawks gave them a scare in Game 2 of their Western Conference Round-1 matchup Thursday, rallying from a 2-0 deficit and pushing them to overtime at 3-3. But the Golden Knights didn’t get rattled. About seven minutes in, right winger Reilly Smith buried a feed from center Paul Stastny past Hawks goalie Corey Crawford, sealing another victory for Vegas.
To tally it up, then: the Golden Knights won their last two games entering the March-12 shutdown. They won all three games in their round-robin against the West’s elite teams. They’ve won two straight to open their series with Chicago. That’s seven in a row, spread across more than five months. The margin of victory: 31-19. The victims: Calgary, Edmonton, Dallas, St. Louis, Colorado, Chicago, Chicago again.
Including the round-robin and the official post-season, this team is now 22-5-2 since Peter DeBoer took over as coach following Gerard Gallant’s firing. No one ever wants to get overconfident in sports, lest they provide opponents with bulletin-board material, but it’s hard to find a team more comfortable in its collective skin than Vegas right now.
“From a goalie’s perspective, letting in a goal, there’s no panic,” said goaltender Robin Lehner, who is 7-0-0 across the regular season and bubble play since arriving at the trade deadline in February. “Letting in two goals…you trust your team that we can come back. It’s a very well structured team here, and a lot of skill at the same time. We’ve just got to keep it going.”
So why is this the toughest team to beat in the sport right now? The Golden Knights certainly overwhelm opponents, pelting them with pucks. During the regular season, after DeBoer took over Jan. 16, no team attempted more shots or allowed fewer shots at 5-on-5 than Vegas. No team put more pucks on goal and allowed fewer pucks on goal. No team generated more scoring chances and allowed fewer scoring chances. No team created more high-danger chances and…oh, the Golden Knights only allowed the third-fewest. Sorry. But you get the idea.
“Since (return to play) training camps opened up, (DeBoer) instilled in us, get back to the basics, get back to what got us good,” Stastny said after Game 2. “If we stick with that, we’ve got a good enough team. We’ve got a lot of depth, we play a good team game, and there’s not a lot of teams that can play our style for 60 minutes.”
Vegas has indeed carried its dominance into the bubble. Across five games, the Golden Knights rate as a top-two possession team, which is particularly impressive considering their opponents included powerhouses like St. Louis and Colorado. Stastny said he feels Vegas “can win in different ways,” and there’s merit to that theory. It got goals from three different lines in Game 2 and now has 13 different goal-scorers in five games, including six players with at least two goals. The Golden Knights can beat you with skill or grind you with their checkers. They’ve also showed an steely closer’s mentality in the post-season so far, outscoring opponents 11-1 in the third period and overtime.
So when a team is this superior, winning the close ones and the blowouts, getting sturdy goaltending and offensive contributions up and down the lineup, from forwards and defensemen…how do you not start to feel superhman? And can that be a dangerous thing?
For DeBoer, finding things to criticize, even when his team is running the table, keeps the troops sharp. He laughed and admitted he and his coaching staff “lit into” the team after Game 1 – a 4-1 win – regarding its puck decisions. But it’s not a matter of being a pessimist. It’s about keeping the team hungry to chase perfection, and DeBoer has total buy-in right now.
“It hasn’t been a problem finding ways to improve our game, and our guys want that,” he said. “At the same time, you have to take your hat off to them. They find ways to win every night and have a feeling on that bench that, regardless of their situation, they’re going to find a way to win. And that’s a good feeling to have as a coach standing back there.”
The numbers tell us Vegas has been hockey’s most dominant team since mid-January, and it sounds like the team possesses the perfect blend of swagger and humility right now. That makes the Golden Knights the Stanley Cup frontrunner.
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