On one side, you have one of the teams of this generation, a Los Angeles Kings squad with two Stanley Cup victories on its resume. On the other, you have the brand-new Vegas Golden Knights, an expansion franchise riding a magical run to a Pacific Division title during their first season.
If that’s not a sexy enough narrative to build intrigue, consider the clashing styles.
While the Kings have opened things up since moving on from Darryl Sutter, they’re still a button-downed team, they still allowed the fewest goals in the NHL this season (202). Meanwhile, the Golden Knights have hit the ground running. Whether you think they’re for real or that their pixie dust is running out, there’s little denying that Vegas pushes the pedal to the metal. Few teams push the pace like Vegas, so it’s little surprise that the Golden Knights finished in the top five in scoring.
The Golden Knights broke just about every record imaginable for an expansion team, especially in the NHL. They finished the season with a 51-24-7 record for 109 standings points, trailing only Nashville and Winnipeg in the West.
Despite Jeff Carter missing a big portion of 2017-18, the Kings secured the West’s first wild card spot after missing the playoffs last season and seeing massive front office changes. Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty carried the Kings to a 45-29-8 record for 98 points.
It’s true that Vegas finished 11 points ahead of Los Angeles, yet they were closely matched during head-to-head meetings. The Golden Knights won the first two games of their season series (Nov. 19 in regulation, Dec. 28 in overtime) and then the Kings won the last two (Feb. 26 in OT, regulation win one day later).
Let’s break down what could be the least predictable series of the first round.
Vegas: The Golden Knights combined two parts former Panthers (Reilly Smith, Jonathan Marchessault) and a light-scoring former Blue Jacket (William Karlsson) to form one of the deadliest lines in the NHL. Karlsson topped the Golden Knights with a stunning 43-goal, 78-point season. Marchessault wasn’t far behind, while Smith was very productive but limited a bit by injuries.
Like Karlsson, Erik Haula enjoyed the season of his life – or a huge breakthrough? – by scoring 29 goals and 55 points.
More familiar faces rounded things out nicely. James Neal extended his streak of 20+ goal-seasons with 25, while David Perron finished third on the team with 66 points. Motivation has been an asset for Vegas all season long, and Karlsson, Perron, and Neal rank among the forwards who still have new contracts to earn.
Los Angeles: Anze Kopitar likely deserves more Hart buzz than he gets, but then again, isn’t that often the story with the Kings’ perennial Selke candidate? He generated a whopping 92 points, blowing away his previous career-high of 81. The second-closest Kings scorer among forwards was Dustin Brown, who rode shotgun with Kopitar to a redemptive 61-point season. Three Kings forwards passed 20 goals in 2017-18: Kopitar (35), Brown (28), and Tyler Toffoli (24).
That said, Jeff Carter was certainly on pace to do so. Despite being limited to 27 games played, Carter scored 13 goals and nine assists for 22 points.
Advantage: Golden Knights, although Kopitar is most likely to be the best forward on the ice.
Vegas: The beauty of the expansion experience is that players received the best opportunities of their NHL careers, and that seemed especially true on defense. Colin Miller (41 points, 19:20 minutes per game), Nate Schmidt (36 points, 22:14 ATOI), Shea Theodore (29 points, 20:21 ATOI), Deryk Engelland (23 points, 20:16 ATOI), and Brayden McNabb (15 points, 20:09 ATOI) all enjoyed some of the best work of their careers.
As a group, they enabled Gerard Gallant to unleash the hounds without suffering too much in their own end.
Kings: Released from the shackles of Sutter’s system, Drew Doughty generated 60 points this season, the best output of his impressive career. Doughty earns his hype, while the Kings also employ two underrated blueliners in Jake Muzzin (42 points, strong possession stats) and Alec Martinez (25 points, though with shaky possession numbers). As mentioned earlier, the Kings limited opponents scoring thanks to some great high-end players.
Depth might be something the Golden Knights can exploit, though. Dion Phaneuf generated OK offense since joining the Kings (10 points in 26 games), but the big-name defenseman continues to leak chances. If Vegas can force Los Angeles into trading blows rather than slowing things down, it could be a long couple of weeks for players like Phaneuf. That’s especially true if Muzzin can’t play due to injuries.
Advantage: Kings. Few defensemen are prepared to log huge minutes at a high level like Doughty, who’s easily the best defenseman in this series.
Vegas: What a weird year of goalies for Vegas, especially since they generally did such a great job weathering all the turbulence. Five different netminders suited up for Las Vegas, as Marc-Andre Fleury and Malcolm Subban both suffered through injuries, occasionally at the same time.
Fleury generated the best save percentage of his career, posting a .927 mark while going 29-13-4 in 46 games. He’d be getting serious consideration for the Vezina if injuries didn’t railroad the quantity to go with all of that quality.
“MAF” has quietly been impressive, for the most part, lately. He’s generated a .920 or better season in three of his last four campaigns. Even last year (.909 save percentage), Fleury helped the Penguins with excellent postseason work.
Los Angeles: Jonathan Quick enjoyed one of the best years of his career, going 33-28-3 with a strong .921 save percentage.
Much like Fleury, Quick has been a polarizing goalie. Analytics-minded fans have often criticized Quick, while mainstream pundits sometimes exaggerate his accomplishments. In 2017-18, Quick earned the accolades.
Advantage: Golden Knights. Fleury’s generated better numbers this season and in recent years. Both goalies have plenty of postseason experience, so they have the confidence of their teams.
Vegas: The Golden Knights’ power play generated 53 goals, gave up five shorthanded tallies, and enjoyed a 21.4-percent success rate (tied for eighth in the NHL). Their PK gave up 44 goals while scoring eight shorties, killing 81.4 percent of their penalties (tied for 10th). Overall, special teams is a net positive (+12) for Vegas.
Los Angeles: The Kings topped the NHL by killing 85 percent of their penalties, while their 39 power-play goals allowed was second-best in the NHL (Los Angeles also scored five shorthanded goals). Los Angeles scored 49 power-play goals and allowed four shorthanded goals, generating a PP% of 20.4 (tied for 17th). Consider that a net positive of +10.
Advantage: Kings. The Golden Knights get the nod for balance, but it’s tough to ignore the fact that the Kings boast one of the best penalty kill units in the NHL. Like many facets of this series, it’s close.
Vegas: You’d think that the Kings will be on their best behavior but …
/Cuts to a shot of a car rolling into Sin City, with bright lights blinking and casinos never sleeping. Vince Vaughn may be in this montage.
Home-ice advantage could be significant for Vegas. The question is: how significant will it be?
Los Angeles: Normally, when you hear the word “experience” thrown around, it’s tough to resist rolling your eyes.
You can keep a straight face this time. The Kings have two Cups to their name, and in each case, they didn’t exactly set the NHL on fire during the regular season. (This is a team with two championship banners and zero division titles during that run, after all.)
The Golden Knights are in their first season against a team that knows all about the pressures, the grind, and the matchups that come with playoff hockey. Maybe that veteran edge will allow the Kings to control the tempo?
Kings in six games. The Golden Knights are the ultimate underdogs, so why not keep that going by doubting them even though they won their division and hold home-ice advantage against Los Angeles? This could be a weird one, even by first-round standards.