Here is a sentence that would have been laughable to even suggest back in October: If the Vegas Golden Knights beat the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday night they will move into sole possession for first place in the entire NHL.
At this point the Golden Knights, the NHL’s latest expansion team, are no longer just a fun story: They are a contender, a legitimate one, and they only keep getting stronger as the season progresses. There is a pretty convincing argument to be made that they actually are the best team in hockey at the moment.
Entering play on Sunday Vegas is on a 15-3-3 run since Dec. 1.
What is even more impressive than the record itself is the way they are starting to dominate games.
When Vegas found its initial success it was easy to kind of downplay it as a team that was simply riding a wave of hot goaltending that would, inevitably, regress. Whenever that regression happened the expectation was that they would start to play like a regular expansion team and start losing.
For a while, there was a lot of evidence to suggest that was going to be the case.
In that first month Vegas was losing the shot bottle, it was losing the possession battle, and with Marc-Andre Fleury sidelined it was relying on a patchwork group of goaltenders to somehow steal games.
But take a look at what has happened in each month since looking at their Corsi percentage (shot attempts at even-strength) and PDO (even-strength shooting percentage plus even-strength save percentage).
The slow start is understandable. It was a new team with what was thought to be an undermanned roster that had never played together. Since then they have steadily gone from being one of the worst possession teams in the league in the first month that got by on what was mostly percentage driven good fortune, to a team that has been, at least in January, the absolute best possession team in the league.
If you look at December and January together (the aforementioned 15-3-3 stretch) the Golden Knights are the the seventh-best possession team. They have only been outshot five times in those 21 games, and only three of those teams outshot them by more than five.
By comparison, Vegas has outshot nine teams by at least five, including seven by at least 10 shots during that same stretch.
There is still an element of some percentage driven luck here, especially when it comes to the goaltending. Fleury is not going to maintain a .945 save percentage for the rest of the season, and William Karlsson still can not miss when the puck is on his stick. He may have deserved more of a look in his previous stops in Anaheim and Columbus, but he is also not a 26 percent shooter every season.
But the fact the Golden Knights are starting to drive possession and control the overwhelming majority of the shot attempts is not only incredibly impressive, it is extremely encouraging for their outlook for the remainder of the season.
They are not just getting the results at the moment, the process driving the results is sound as well.
From the very beginning absolutely everything has clicked for them. The goaltending has been sensational, their top line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith has found immediate chemistry, and they are playing a fast, aggressive style of hockey that is starting to overwhelm teams.
Even if Vegas played the remainder of the season at the level of a normal expansion team (let’s say a .400 points percentage) they would still finish with 94 points on the season. There is nothing to suggest they will play at that level. Instead, if they keep playing the way they have been for the better part of the past two months they are going to be giving Tampa Bay, Boston, and Nashville a run for the Presidents’ Trophy. In their very first season.