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Why the Vegas Golden Knights are the most intriguing expansion team the NHL has ever seen

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There is no bigger surprise through the first month of the NHL season than the Vegas Golden Knights.

With wins in seven of their first eight games, including four in a row heading into their game against the Colorado Avalanche on Friday night, they are off to the best start of any expansion team in league history.

There are a lot of explanations for the fast start.

It has been pointed out that the early season schedule has been on their side. They have already played the Arizona Coyotes (still searching for their first win heading into Thursday night) twice and have also had games against Dallas, Buffalo and Detroit (non-playoff teams from a year ago). They have played only one set of back-to-backs.

But they have also played Boston, St. Louis and Chicago, all playoff teams from a season ago, and beaten them all (granted, Boston and St. Louis are also dealing with pretty significant injury issues).

There has also been a smoke-and-mirrors element to some of their success thanks to some goaltending magic from three different goalkeepers. They had to know that starter Marc-Andre Fleury would give them a chance to win on most nights, but even after he was sidelined from a concussion the strong play in net continued with his backups.

Malcolm Subban, a complete disaster in his only two NHL appearances prior to this season, won his first two starts (and played outstanding) in relief of Fleury, and then Oscar Dansk stepped in stopped 39 of the first 42 shots he has faced. As a trio, the Vegas goaltenders have a combined save percentage of .930, the third highest mark in the league.

While the goaltenders have been great, the Vegas skaters have found a similar level of percentage based success by scoring on 11.3 percent of their shots, the fifth best mark in the league.

Usually when teams like this experience these short bursts of percentage-based success it can be short-lived and completely fall apart when those percentages start to regress. And they always do. But even if the early success is a little flukey and isn’t destined to continue over 82 games the Golden Knights are still one of the most intriguing expansion teams we have seen enter the NHL over the past three decades. And their early success is completely unmatched.

When the Vegas front office assembled its roster through the expansion draft there was, naturally, a lot of second guessing about which players they picked, the deals they made, and whether or not they maximized the talent that was available to them. All fair questions and concerns. But even with that I think we have kind of lost sight of the fact that this is still probably the most talented roster that has entered the league in any of the recent expansions. At least as it relates to the top of the roster. This is both a testament to the expansion rules that made better players available, and just how bad some of the past expansion teams have been.

Let’s dig into this a little bit.

Since the start of the 1990-91 season the NHL has added 10 teams, including the Golden Knights. The one thing they had in common was the fact that they all got off to miserable starts.

The only one of the expansion teams other than Vegas to win more than two of their first eight games was the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992-93. They won three. Vegas has already won seven, meaning they are only three wins shy of matching what the Ottawa Senators won in their debut season. They are already halfway to Atlanta’s win total from the Thrashers’ inaugural season and only 10 shy of what the San Jose Sharks were able to do when they entered the league.

Only two of the recent expansion teams won more than 28 games in their first season. Vegas would only need to win 22 games over their final 74 to top that. That is only a 28 percent winning percentage. That is well within reach even for an expansion team, even if the goaltending and shooting percentages regress.

One of the things that stands out about this Vegas roster is just how much more talented it is than all of the past expansion teams because when you look back at all of them, from San Jose to Columbus, they were all LOUSY. From the makeup of the rosters to the play on the ice to where they finished in the standings.

Consider this: The Vegas roster has three players on it that have scored at least 25 goals in one of the past two seasons. Jonathan Marchessault scored 30 a year ago for the Florida Panthers. Reilly Smith scored 25 two years ago for the Boston Bruins. James Neal scored 30 two years ago for the Nashville Predators and scored 23 in 70 games a year ago. He is a consistend 25-30 goal scorer over an 82-game season.

If you look at each of the previous nine NHL expansion teams do you know how many players they had on their opening night rosters that had scored at least 25 goals within two years of being selected by their new team?

Two.

Combined.

The 2000-01 Minnesota Wild had Sergei Krivokrasov after he scored 25 goals for (the also expansion) Nashville Predators in 1998-99. It was the only time he scored more than 12 goals in a single NHL season.

The 1991-92 San Jose Sharks had Paul Fenton two years after he scored 32 goals for the Winnipeg Jets.

And that was it. The bulk of those rosters were made up of players that had little to no NHL experience or had made their living as role players or bottom-of-the-lineup depth players. There were not many top-six options or players with any sort of sustained success (or even recent success) in the NHL. Those teams had no established players or anybody that could be a legit scoring threat. It resulted in some terrible (and terribly uninteresting) hockey.

Technically the Columbus Blue Jackets had Ray Whitney on their roster one year after he scored 29 goals for the Florida Panthers, but he did not actually start the season with Columbus. The Blue Jackets acquired him from the Panthers late in their debut season and he only actually played three games for the expansion Blue Jackets that season.

You might look at this and shrug and say, who cares, it’s still only three players and we’re really not even sure how good players like Smith and Marchessault actually are. Marchessault has only had one big year in the league to this point, while Smith badly regressed after his 25-goal season and was basically acquired as a salary dump. But they are still players that have a recent track record of at least some pretty decent success in the NHL. When you look at the Vegas stat lines so far this season you notice that those three players have contributed to a bulk of the offense.

Neal and Smith are the top-two point producers on the roster.

Neal has eight points (including six goals) in eight games while Smith has seven. Marchessault has only played in five games but has already scored a pair of goals. Together, that trio has already scored 10 of Vegas’ goals and assisted on seven others. Vegas has only scored 10 goals that one of those three players has not a hand in.

This also doesn’t include David Perron, a fairly skilled player that scored 28 goals just three years ago. Perron has five points in eight games for Vegas.

But the biggest part of the success, again, comes down to goaltending. And again, Vegas has a better option (when healthy) than almost any other recent expansion team. Below is a list of the goalies that played the most games for each of the past 10 expansion teams, the number of games they played prior to joining their new team, and the number of games they had won. It is, for the most part, a rather lackluster list of goalies.

Other than Vanbiesbrouck, who was a key part of the Panthers reaching the Stanley Cup Final in just their third season, that is mostly a list of career backups and fringe NHL starters (I will listen to your arguments for why Ron Tugnutt should be included with Fleury and Vanbiesbrouck in the legit NHL starter category). Vegas is coming into the league with a goalie that has spent a decade as a top half of the league starter and a guy with his name on the Stanley Cup three times. That is a pretty good starting point, and before his injury he was playing outstanding hockey.

When compared to the other 30 teams around the NHL this is still probably a lower level roster when you look at it from top-to-bottom, and as we get deeper into the season that will probably start to become more noticeable in the standings and in the results on the ice. There are also probably not many players on this roster that will be a part of the first Vegas playoff team.

But in the short-term it is at least a roster that is going to be capable of giving new fans a reasonably exciting product to watch.

It is still a team that has marketable players to use as trade chips (James Neal, for example) to continue building the roster from the ground up. All of that is more than any of the league’s previous expansion teams over the past 30 years can say.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

NHL Bubble Wrap: McDavid, Svechnikov put on hat trick shows; Rangers on brink

McDavid Svechnikov hat trick Game 2 NHL scores highlights stars
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  • Andrei Svechnikov and Connor McDavid treated fans with not one, but two hat tricks. Very generous.
  • Carey Price played about as well as you could without actually winning.
  • The Rangers are the first team facing pending elimination, while other series are now 1-0 or tied 1-1.

Monday’s NHL scores, recaps

Hurricanes 4, Rangers 1 (Carolina leads series 2-0)

The Hurricanes have yet to trail in this 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifier series, and the Rangers are running out of time to get back into this. The series could end as soon as Tuesday; either way, the Rangers face serious odds in overcoming this deficit in a best-of-five series. Andrei Svechnikov collected a hat trick, with Sebastian Aho generated three assists of his own. The gap between the Hurricanes and Rangers only seems to get more pronounced as this series goes along. Things will need to change on Tuesday for this not to be a very short series for Artemi Panarin & Co.

Jets 3, Flames 2 (Series tied 1-1)

With Calgary up 1-0, and without both Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine, the deck seemed stacked against the Jets. Despite those absences, and seeing the Flames tie things up after Winnipeg went up 2-0, the Jets just found a way to hang in there and tie this series 1-1. Connor Hellebuyck continues to play at a very high level, but the Jets must feel great about their overall team effort to grind out this tough win.

Lightning 3, Capitals 2 (SO) — Eastern Conference Round Robin

Early on, the Lightning dominated puck possession against the Capitals, eventually taking a 2-0 lead. That wouldn’t be enough, as the Capitals were the ones striking lighting-quick with two fast goals. Ultimately, the Lightning won in the shootout to tie the Flyers early on in the race for the East’s top seed.

Golden Knights 5, Stars 3 — Western Conference Round Robin

The biggest story from this one came before the game, as Golden Knights (Ryan Reaves and Robin Lehner) joined Stars (Tyler Seguin and Jason Dickinson) in kneeling during both national anthems. The game itself featured wild swings. After the Golden Knights built a 1-0 first period lead, the Stars rattled off three consecutive goals. The Golden Knights ended up owning the third, however, scoring four straight goals to win.

Penguins 3, Canadiens 1 (Series tied 1-1)

When Sidney Crosby scored earlier on, it seemed like it might begin an explosive game. Instead, Carey Price proved very difficult to beat, but the Penguins pulled it off. It wasn’t always pretty — the Penguins’ power play was particularly pungent — but Pittsburgh tied the series 1-1 on Monday.

Oilers 6, Blackhawks 3 (Series tied 1-1)

Connor McDavid didn’t waste a minute shutting his critics up. He barely “wasted” a second. McDavid scored the 1-0 goal just 19 seconds into Game 2, and ultimately managed a hat trick. Nothing bland about that.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars from Monday’s NHL games

1a. Andrei Svechnikov (with Sebastian Aho); 1b. Connor McDavid (with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins)

How do you pick between hat tricks, in the cases of Svechnikov and McDavid? Especially since, remarkably, both McDavid and Svechnikov managed their hat tricks on three shots on goal apiece? Oh yeah, both McDavid and Svechnikov both scored the game-winning goals on their way to hat tricks, and each player was accompanied by three-assist teammates in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Sebastian Aho respectively.

Well … you really need to split hairs. Svechnikov and McDavid both, naturally, dominated play in collecting their hat tricks. Svechnikov was on the ice for two even-strength goals for and none against, while McDavid (two for, one against) had slightly less of a “net positive” at five-on-five. So let’s consider Svechnikov “1a” for Monday.

Also, more people will (understandably) focus on McDavid, so let’s get Svechnikov some love, too. The dude did entertain us with lacrosse-style goals, after all.

3. Carey Price

It’s tough to hand the third star spot to the goalie of a losing team. You could make the point for the three-assist men above, along with another three-helper in Miro Heiskanen of the Stars. Connor Hellebuyck was sharp in helping the Jets manage a hard-fought win.

But goodness, was Price ever outstanding against the Penguins in Game 2. Via Natural Stat Trick, the Penguins’ expected goals at all strengths was 5.51, the most of any team on Monday. That was due in large part to the power-play opportunities the Penguins received, but they truly dominated the Habs. Price kept the Canadiens in the game by stopping 35 out of 37 shots.

It wasn’t enough to steal Game 2 for the Canadiens, but it was enough to impress.

2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers — top highlights from Monday

Who in their right mind would call McDavid bland? He certainly isn’t boring on the ice:

Svechnikov: not bland, either.

Factoids

  • By collecting his 68th career playoff goal, Crosby tied Gordie Howe for 18th most in NHL playoff history. That tally also pushed Crosby’s career playoff point total to 188, tying Crosby with Joe Sakic and Doug Gilmour for eighth all-time.
  • For all of the Golden Knights’ accomplishments as a young team, Monday’s win marked the first time Vegas overcame a multi-goal deficit in the third period to win.
  • This marks McDavid’s first playoff hat trick. Four Oilers managed a hat trick in the last 20 years: McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Bill Guerin, and Doug Weight.

Tuesday NHL schedule: Six 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifier games

Game 2: Panthers vs. Islanders, 12 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Islanders lead series 1-0)

Game 2: Coyotes vs. Predators, 2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Coyotes lead series 1-0)

Game 2: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Blue Jackets lead series 1-0)

Game 3: Flames vs. Jets, 6:45 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Series tied 1-1)

Game 3: Hurricanes vs. Rangers, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Rangers lead series 2-0)

Game 2: Wild vs. Canucks, 10:45 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Wild lead series 1-0)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

McDavid responds with hat trick in Game 2; Oilers tie series with Blackhawks

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Connor McDavid haters: hold onto your hats. Then throw them to the ice/at your TV sets. After an embarrassing overall performance in Game 1, the Oilers tied their 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifier Series 1-1 with the Blackhawks by running away with Game 2 by a score of 6-3.

McDavid delivers hat trick in Game 2 as Oilers tie series with Blackhawks

McDavid set the tone right away by scoring the 1-0 goal just 19 seconds into Game 2. The Oilers superstar fattened the Oilers’ lead to 2-0 a bit more than four minutes into Game 2, and eventually McDavid recorded a hat trick by the second period.

The hat trick ceremony was almost as good as watching McDavid hit top speed:

(OK, maybe not, but pretty cool.)

If you look only at box scores, you’d maybe think that McDavid’s Game 2 wasn’t that different than his Game 1 experience. After all, McDavid was productive in Game 1, getting credited with a goal and two assists.

The difference was pretty stark, though, as McDavid and the Oilers struggled mightily all-around in Game 1, while they controlled most of Game 2.

Not perfect, but a big response from the Oilers

Granted, the final score might make Game 2 seem like more of a cakewalk than it truly was.

On one hand, the Oilers hogged the puck for significant spans of play. On the other hand, there was some sloppiness. Edmonton saw a 3-1 lead evaporate into a 3-3 tie as both the Blackhawks and Oilers made plenty of mistakes during Game 2.

McDavid’s hat-trick goal gave Edmonton a 4-3 lead they wouldn’t relinquish, though. With two goals 40 seconds apart in the third period, James Neal and Alex Chiasson put Game 2 out of reach.

If these first two games are any indication, this could be a wild series. Blackhawks – Oilers might create a lot of chances for offensive stars like McDavid and Patrick Kane (1G, 1A), and a lot of headaches for the goalie in both nets.

(5) Edmonton Oilers vs. (12) Chicago Blackhawks (Series tied 1-1)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Blackhawks 6, Oilers 4 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Oilers 6, Blackhawks 3
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Oilers vs. Blackhawks, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 7: Oilers vs. Blackhawks*, TBD
Saturday, Aug. 8: Blackhawks vs. Oilers*, TBD

You can watch all the NHL playoff streams on the NBC Sports app.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Penguins tie series with Canadiens despite Carey Price’s brilliance

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Some people nodded their heads at the “Carey Price could steal a series against the Penguins” talking points; others rolled their eyes. During much of Game 2 of the Penguins – Canadiens 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifier, most people were just shaking their heads in disbelief at how great Price was. Even so, the Penguins did just enough to tie the series 1-1 via a 3-1 win.

Price was righteous; Penguins’ power play needs serious work

Carey Price and the Canadiens penalty kill already impressed in Game 1, keeping an on-paper-potent power play to an inefficient 1-for-7. Price & Co. were even stingier in Game 2, keeping the Penguins off the board (0-for-5) despite a steady stream of early opportunities.

In both games, the Penguins failed to score on 5-on-3 power play opportunities.

As with a lot of these situations, special teams successes and failures come down to a mix of factors. On one hand, the Canadiens performed admirably on the PK, and Price was brilliant whenever that structure broke down. But the Penguins’ power play looked flat, and almost cost Pittsburgh Game 2.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Crosby’s goal proved crucial; Penguins dominated Canadiens at even strength in Game 2

When Sidney Crosby scored the 1-0 goal just 4:25 into Game 2, it seemed like it would merely be a prelude to a busy game. Instead, it served as the only goal of Game 2 for significant chunk of the night.

Crosby made some history with that goal, his second in two games. By collecting his 68th career playoff goal, Crosby tied Gordie Howe for 18th most in NHL playoff history. That tally also pushed Crosby’s career playoff point total to 188, tying Crosby with Joe Sakic and Doug Gilmour for eighth all-time.

Late in the third period, Jason Zucker connected on a nice 2-0 goal, while Conor Sheary collected his second assist of Game 2. Jesperi Kotkaniemi then broke Matt Murray‘s shutout attempt to make it 2-1, but that goal came far too late for Montreal to push Game 2 into OT. Like Crosby, Kotkaniemi has two goals in as many games in this best-of-five series. Jake Guentzel‘s empty-netter ended any hint of late-building drama in Game 2.

Overall, the Penguins find themselves breathing a sigh of relief, and maybe catching their breath. Meanwhile, the Canadiens must feel decent about having this series tied 1-1, although they’ll need to give Price more support to advance. For all of the criticism the Penguins’ power play may receive, the Canadiens likely need to work beyond a “bend but don’t break” approach.

5) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (12) Montreal Canadiens (Series tied 1-1/Habs lead series 2-0)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Canadiens 3, Penguins 2 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Penguins 3, Canadiens 1
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Penguins vs. Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 7: Penguins vs. Canadiens*
Saturday, Aug. 8: Canadiens vs. Penguins*

You can watch all the NHL playoff streams on the NBC Sports app.

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Blackhawks-Oilers stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers

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NBC’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Monday’s Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup between the Blackhawks and Oilers. Coverage begins at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Blackhawks-Oilers Game 2 stream at 10:30 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Connor McDavid scored 2:34 into the game to give Edmonton the early lead before Chicago scored four straight goals – two by captain Jonathan Toews – to take a 4-1 lead after the first period. Rookie Dominik Kubalik was the story the rest of the way.

While Toews, Patrick Kane, McDavid and Leon Draisaitl all found the score sheet, it was Kubalik who made the headlines. The Calder Trophy finalist, who led all rookies with 30 goals during the regular season, set an NHL record for most points (5) in a playoff debut.

Mike Smith allowed five goals on 23 shots before being pulled in the second for Mikko Koskinen.

“We’ll talk about where we are with our goaltenders, and I thought Mikko was fine in net,” Oilers head coach Dave Tippett said. “We have confidence in both our guys, we had long discussions about it. We think we’ll use both in the [postseason]… We started the season 5-0 (with) Smitty. We thought we wanted to start the postseason the same way. We were very confident in Smitty. Other than the giveaway that went off his back, he was kind of left on his own out there.”

Blackhawks forward Drake Caggiula has been suspended for Game 2 following an illegal check to the head of Tyler Ennis.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WHAT: Chicago Blackhawks vs. Edmonton Oilers
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Monday, August 3, 10:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: Kenny Albert, AJ Mleczko, Pierre McGuire
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Blackhawks-Oilers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

(5) Edmonton Oilers vs. (12) Chicago Blackhawks (Blackhawks lead series 1-0)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Blackhawks 6, Oilers 4 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Blackhawks vs. Oilers, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Oilers vs. Blackhawks, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 7: Oilers vs. Blackhawks*, TBD
Saturday, Aug. 8: Blackhawks vs. Oilers*, TBD

You can watch all the NHL playoff streams on the NBC Sports app.

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule