Golden Knights' recent play might be reason to second-guess their playoff potential

Vegas has turned in a dream season, setting expansion records en route to becoming the talk of the NHL. As the playoffs approach, though, the Golden Knights are starting to show some cracks.
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When the Vegas Golden Knights’ season ultimately ends, the expansion franchise will have accomplished more than anyone ever would have expected. A record-setting regular season has already seen Vegas set or match almost every conceivable record for winning by a first-year organization. The Golden Knights have also been the most offensively potent expansion franchise in the modern era, one of the better defensive clubs and coach Gerard Gallant will almost assuredly win the Jack Adams Award for his work behind the bench. It was just this week, too, that Vegas put a stamp on their regular season by becoming the first modern expansion team to earn a playoff berth, and they did so with time to spare.

As the leaders in the Pacific Division, a spot they’ve held for the majority of the season, the Golden Knights will also enter the post-season as favorites to emerge from their group come the post-season, and the betting odds support that. Almost everywhere you look, Vegas is considered at least a top-five Stanley Cup favorite, which is remarkable given they were at the bottom of the heap around the time the betting lines started to roll out. 

Despite all of the Golden Knights’ regular season record-setting success and top-odds post-season potential, though, it’s getting increasingly difficult to believe Vegas can continue to pull off the previously unthinkable and win the division come playoff time. Matter of fact, it’s starting to look as though the prospect of an early exit is just as likely as a trip to the Western Conference final.

The standings alone suggest that Vegas, once a powerhouse in the Pacific and out West, has started to slip in recent months. Since Feb. 1, the Golden Knights have pieced together a modest 15-10-3 record, which is good for 33 points and puts Vegas into a tie for 11th in the league over that span. However, they’re only a point up on the Colorado Avalanche, Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings and Arizona Coyotes since the beginning of February, and based on points percentage, the Golden Knights are middle of the pack. Vegas’ points percentage since Feb. 1 is .589, which ranks fifth in the Pacific, ninth in the Western Conference and 16th in the NHL.

It’s not just a matter of wins and losses, either, because Vegas’ base statistics haven’t been all that favorable over the past two months. The Golden Knights have 87 goals since the beginning of February and have scored 3.11 per game, tied for 13th in the league, and Vegas ranks 11th in goals against having surrendered 77 over their past 28 games, or 2.75 per game. The offense, however, has been buoyed by an excellent power play — second in the league over the past two months at 28.6 percent — but that leaves the 5-on-5 units scoring at a 1.96 goals per game rate, which ranks 17th in the NHL. Meanwhile, Vegas’ penalty kill has been mediocre at the best of times. Its 80 percent success rate is 16th in the NHL since February began.

But as much as the record is concerning, and as much as their base numbers are reason for pause, what’s most worrisome about the Golden Knights over the past two months is that Vegas’ underlying numbers aren’t exactly inspiring. And while it’s not as though the Golden Knights are suddenly crashing back to earth, it does appear that Vegas is starting to come back to the pack, and their perceived edge over the rest of the Pacific, let alone their ability to hang with the West’s top contenders, may not be as significant as the overall standings seemingly indicate.

Consider that of all the more notable 5-on-5 advanced statistics — shots, shot attempts, scoring chances and high-danger chances — there is only category in which Vegas ranks among the top 10 teams in the NHL over the past two months: scoring chances against, where the Golden Knights sit in eighth having allowed only 26.9 per 60 minutes. That said, their overall scoring chances for percentage sits at 49.7 percent since Feb. 1, or 18th in the league, and Vegas’ other underlying numbers are much the same, too. Per 60 minutes, the Golden Knights sit 25th in shots for, 12th in shots against and 20th in shots for percentage at 49.1 percent. Likewise, Vegas ranks 19th in shot attempts for, 11th in shot attempts against and their 50.1 percent shot attempts percentage is 13th. And while they may sit around the middle of the pack in scoring chances, their high-danger attempts rate has been abysmal. No team has produced fewer high-quality chances per 60 minutes than the Golden Knights over the past two months and no team has a lower percentage of high-danger chances than Vegas’ 43.2 percent rate over that span.

It’s not as though these are the Golden Knights’ numbers over a small sample size, either. They’ve played 28 games since the start of February, the equivalent of more than one-third of the schedule. And even if we wanted to pull numbers for the whole season, it’s not as if Vegas’ standing is all that much better. They would still rank 12th in shots percentage and 13th in shot attempts percentage. And though they climb into 10th in scoring chances percentage, 19th in high-danger chances percentage and seventh in goals for percentage, each respective number has dropped over the past several weeks.

None of this is to say Vegas can’t roll into the post-season and win a round. It’s not even to say they won’t rediscover that same opening season magic and go on another incredible run that sees them go head-to-head with the winner of the Central for the right to represent the conference in the Stanley Cup final. But with the way the Golden Knights have been playing in the lead up to the post-season, it may not be all that surprising if Vegas’ dream season ends with an earlier post-season exit than most would have expected when the second half began.

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