The Golden Knights are back in the playoffs. How far can they go?
The Vegas Golden Knights didn’t just shred the expansion-franchise record book during their inaugural season, they wrote a second edition. But here’s the thing about wildly successful inaugural years: They’re usually followed by the dreaded sophomore slump. And, sure enough, after the rookie-season Knights finished with 51 victories, 109 points, and a Pacific Division title, the sophomore-season Knights were, by late March, on pace for about 46 wins, 98 points, and a third-place finish in the Pacific. Still good enough for a playoff berth, making the Knights the first modern professional sports franchise to qualify for the postseason in its first two years of existence.
Can this team make another deep playoff run? Yes. But a lot needs to go right, including:
The young guns must shine. Specifically, 23-year-old defenseman Shea Theodore and 22-year-old right-winger Alex Tuck. Both were huge contributors this season after coming up big in last year’s playoffs. Beyond their impressive skills — Theodore had a career-best 33 points through mid-March, while Tuck had a team-leading 48 — the duo’s energy and young legs will be vital this spring.
the hired guns, too. Most general managers whose teams reach the Stanley Cup finals would hesitate to tinker with the roster. Not George McPhee. He was aggressive in the offseason and at the trade deadline, and the result was three talented veterans: Max Pacioretty, Paul Stastny, and Mark Stone. With a combined 65 points in 137 playoff games, they will have to produce on the ice, and lead in the locker room.
And the big guns. It’s not fair to say that two players who rank second and third on the team in goals and points scored experienced a sophomore slump. But, except for brief flashes, centers Johnathan Marchessault and Eric Karlsson haven’t looked the way they did last year when they shouldered most of the Knights’ scoring burden. If Vegas is going to successfully defend its Western Conference championship, these two will need to deliver like they did in last year’s playoffs, when they combined for 15 goals and 21 assists in 20 games.
The power of Flower. The biggest cliché in playoff hockey is, “You’ll only go as far as a hot goaltender will take you.” But it’s a cliché because it’s true. Thankfully for Knights fans, they have future Hall of Famer Marc-Andre Fleury between the pipes. While he was a brick wall last spring, his second season was more solid than spectacular. But if anyone knows how to elevate his game in the playoffs, it’s the owner of three Stanley Cup rings.
Defend the Fortress. Any visiting player or coach will tell you: T-Mobile Arena is the most intimidating venue in the NHL. It’s going to need to be. Unlike last year, every series this spring likely will begin on the road. That means each game at T-Mobile — where the Knights were 58-23-6 through their first 87 regular-season and playoff games — will be a must-win.