The 2017-18 NHL regular season has come to a close, which means it’s time for one of the most exciting events in North American pro sports: the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Nashville Predators and expansion Vegas Golden Knights are the top seeds in the Western Conference, while the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning top the Eastern Conference.
The fact that the Golden Knights are even in the playoffs, let alone a top seed, is certainly remarkable. As of now, the 1967-68 St. Louis Blues are the only expansion team to make it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in their first year of existence. The Knights, who face the playoff-tested L.A. Kings in the first round, have a golden (no pun intended) opportunity to become the second expansion club to make the Final, and the first to win the Cup in year one.
By just about every regular season measure, the Knights just finished the best season of any expansion club in the history of the NHL. Vegas set new records for points (109), home wins (29) and road wins (22), while a remarkable 11 players on the roster set a new career-high for goals scored. William Karlsson led the way with 43 of his own.
Most of the best hockey betting sites out there give Vegas a puncher’s chance of doing what’s never been done before. The Predators (+450) and Lightning (+550) enter the postseason as prohibitive betting favorites, but the Knights (+700) aren’t far behind. The Boston Bruins check in at +750, while the two-time defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins are at +900.
Unfortunately for Vegas, they struggled a bit during the season’s latter stages. It’s never good to enter the postseason in poor form, and Golden Knights went 10-8-2 over the final 20 games of the campaign. While there’s little precedent for an expansion club come playoff time, Gerard Gallant’s men will be hungry to prove doubters wrong.
Facing the Kings is a tough draw, of course. These teams split their four regular season meetings, with Los Angeles coming out victorious in each of the last two. Following a curiously mediocre 2016-17 season, Anze Kopitar reminded the world why he’s a superstar this season. The Kings’ Slovenian center bagged 35 goals along with 57 helpers and is considered to be one of the favorites to win the Hart Trophy.
Containing Kopitar will certainly be priority No. 1 for the Knights defensively.
The Knights have some playoff veterans on the roster, but it’s hard to match the Kings, who still have 11 players remaining from the 2013-14 team that lifted the Stanley Cup. Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Jeff Carter and goaltender Jonathan Quick are chief among them. Of course, it’ll help that Vegas has Marc-Andre Fleury in between their own pipes. Fleury wasn’t the No. 1 in Pittsburgh during either of the last two Stanley Cup Finals, but his form this season shows that he’s still in the upper echelon of netminders in the league.
Saying “defense wins championships” is a tired cliché, but there’s merit to it. Vegas boasts arguably the league’s most dangerous attack, but they’ll have to deal with an L.A. defense that has proven to be among the league’s stingiest units. While it’s been arguably the best story in the NHL this season, we have no idea how Vegas will perform under the bright lights of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Kings have been there, done that. On the shoulders of Kopitar, Quick and a top-tier defensive unit, give me L.A. in 7.