What the Golden Knights’ success tells us about the NHL

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The Vegas Golden Knights are on their way to the Stanley Cup Final and you, the hockey watching fan, probably have some thoughts, opinions and maybe even questions about this shocking development.

Maybe you think it’s an amazing story, or maybe you are a part of a long-suffering fan-base and are angered that a team that just showed up on the scene less than a year ago and is four wins away from winning a championship.

Maybe you are asking questions like: How did a first-year team reach this point, and what does it say about the NHL that it could happen?

Let’s try to tackle that a little bit because there is one massive lesson here that we can take from the success of the Golden Knights: This sport is almost impossible to predict and is more prone to randomness and luck than any other. This is true when it comes to the people running the teams, and those of us watching everything that happens as both partial and impartial observers. Basically, nobody knows anything.

We already discussed the disastrous moves that a lot of NHL teams made throughout the expansion draft process when several of them gave up more than they needed to or made bizarre decisions when it came to their protected lists. All of those criticisms are not only fair, but are richly deserved even if they are made with the benefit of hindsight. On one hand, it was the job of the teams to know what they had as far as protecting the right talent and making smart moves. But not even the Golden Knights front office expected this. Even with there being a lot of head-scratchingly bizarre decisions there was almost nobody that looked at that roster at the start of the season and said “yes, that team is going to be playing in the Stanley Cup Final this season.”

[Related: Don’t blame expansion draft rules for Vegas’ success]

But that is part of the craziness that makes the NHL what it is. It is a sport and a league that is driven by luck and randomness more than most will ever care to admit.

That doesn’t mean that skill and talent and having the best players isn’t important. Because it is. It is just that sometimes the game comes down to a player having a career year at the right time, or several players all having everything click for them at the same time.

It is, by nature, completely unpredictable. It is a game of bounces, mistakes, hot and cold streaks, and at times completely wacky results that do not make any logical sense. This can happen of course of a single game, or a playoff series, or even a full season. Goaltending can be one of the biggest and most important factors in all of that, and Vegas has been the beneficiary of some outstanding goaltending this season, particularly when it comes to the play of Marc-Andre Fleury. And at no time has he been better than he has been during these playoffs where he is authoring one of the greatest postseason performances in league history.

Nothing elevates a team — or sinks it — more than a goaltending a performance. A great one masks flaws and makes a team look better than it might otherwise be. A bad one can sink a contender. Both teams that played in the Western Conference Final this season were perfect examples of that this season. The Jets, with largely the same roster that missed the playoffs a year ago and hadn’t made the postseason in four years, were able to power their way to the NHL’s final four because they finally received a competent goaltending performance. That team should have been a playoff team long before this season, and likely would have been with better goaltending.

That is the biggest thing to draw from Vegas’ success — goaltending drives everything.

The other thing we can take from this season is the power of opportunity and what an increased role can do for some players.

How many players around the NHL are capable of big-time performances are being buried in another team’s lineup or organization without getting a serious look?

In Vegas we saw Erik Haula go from being, at times, a fourth-liner in Minnesota (still capable of scoring 12-15 goals) and end up scoring 29 goals this season for the Golden Knights.

Nate Schmidt was mostly a depth defenseman in Washington and when given an opportunity to be a top-pairing defender has shined for Vegas. The same can be said for Colin Miller.

William Karlsson was mostly an afterthought in Anaheim and Columbus, and even if you accept that he is not going to score 40 goals again because he will probably never have another season where he scores on 23 percent of his shots, he is probably better than the ice-time he was given in his previous two stops showed.

Even though his “breakout” season happened a year ago in Florida Jonathan Marchessault is another example of what opportunity can do for a player. A talented, productive player at every level of hockey he played at that was passed over and discarded probably for no other reason than the fact he is undersized. How many players like him have been stuck in the AHL in recent years or been passed over in the draft?

How many players are there around the NHL like Haula and Schmidt that are buried in another lineup never being given an opportunity to do more, either because they are stuck on good teams with deep depth charts, or simply through poor talent evaluation from their teams?

There are probably quite a few!

Vegas’ success is going to up the pressure on every general manager across the league because people are going to look at this season and say, “if they can go from nothing to the Stanley Cup in one year, what is our excuse?” But nobody is going to get a clean slate with an opportunity build a team like this (at least not until Seattle enters the league, and I don’t envy their general manager trying to follow up this act). And there really is not anyway to replicate or duplicate what they did this season. That doesn’t mean there still aren’t lessons about the league to take from this success. The two biggest ones are to embrace the unpredictability that comes with the sport and how much luck and randomness can drive it, and to understand just how important it is for some players to simply get an opportunity to play a meaningful role.

The Golden Knights aren’t a team of misfits.

They are a team of talented players (and a great, game-changing goalie) that finally received a bigger opportunity.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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: Hurricanes advance, Eberle shines and Maple Leafs get even

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  • Thanks to another big game from Sebastian Aho the Carolina Hurricanes are advancing.
  • The Nashville Predators, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Vancouver Canucks all get even in their series.
  • The Calgary Flames and New York Islanders get one step closer to advancing.

New York Islanders 4, Florida Panthers 2 (Islanders lead series 2-0)

Jordan Eberle scored a pair of goals for the Islanders in 4-2 win as they take a commanding 2-0 series lead over the Florida Panthers. The Islanders were able to feast on a sloppy Panthers effort in the second period to take complete control of the series. This has to be disappointing for the Panthers after spending so much money this offseason to try and build this team into a contender. Now they are in a position where they need to win three in a row to move on.

Nashville Predators 4, Arizona Coyotes 2 (Series tied 1-1)

The Predators stuck with Juuse Saros in net and it turned out to be a bit of a role reversal from what we saw in the first game. This time it was Nashville jumping out to the big early lead and holding off a (very) late push to get the win. The Predators received goals from four different players (Nick Bonino, Ryan Johansen, Calle Jarnkrok, and Viktor Arvidsson) while Saros stopped 24 out of 26 shots for the win. He shut the Coyotes out for 59 minutes before allowing two goals in the final minute of regulation.

Toronto Maple Leafs 3, Columbus Blue Jackets 0 (Series tied 1-1)

After a Game 1 clunker the Maple Leafs desperately needed this win. It was not just the fact they were able to bounce back and win, but the way they were able to win. Simply put, they dominated this game from start to finish and had it not been a valiant effort from Blue Jackets goalie Joonas Korpisalo this could have quickly turned into a blowout. Auston Matthews and John Tavares both scored for the Maple Leafs in the win. The bad news from this game was the scary injury suffered by defenseman Jake Muzzin as he had to be stretchered off the ice late in the third period.

Calgary Flames 6, Winnipeg Jets 2 (Flames lead series 2-1)

The injuries are catching up to the Jets. Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine both missed another game, while Tucker Poolman and Mathieu Perreault were injured in the Jets’ 6-2 loss. It was a huge bounce back game for the Flames as six different players scored goals and Cam Talbot played a great game in net to get them one game closer to advancing.

Carolina Hurricanes 4, New York Rangers 1 (Hurricanes win series 3-0)

The Hurricanes wrapped up a very emphatic and decisive three-game sweep of the New York Rangers on Tuesday night with a 4-1 win to become the first team to advance through the qualifying round. Sebastian Aho scored two more goals including a highlight reel play in the third period (see it below) to finish the series with eight points in the three games. The trio of Aho, Andrei Svechnikov and Teuvo Teravainen is going to be a problem for any opponent this postseason.

Vancouver Canucks 4, Minnesota Wild 3 (Series tied 1-1)

The Canucks needed their top-six to come through after a quiet start to the postseason, and they did exactly that on Tuesday night in a 4-3 win. Brock Boeser, Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat, J.T. Miller, Tanner Pearson, Quinn Hughes, and Alex Edler all had big games to help Vancouver even the series.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Jordan Eberle, New York Islanders. All Eberle has done for the Islanders in his two years with the team is score a bunch of big goals in the playoffs. His two-goal effort on Tuesday helped the Islanders take a commanding 2-0 series lead against the Florida Panthers, while giving him six goals in his first 10 playoff games with the Islanders (dating back to last year’s postseason).

2. James Reimer, Carolina Hurricanes. The last time Reimer started a playoff game he was a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs and on the losing end of an epic Game 7 collapse that saw his team blow a 4-1 third period lead. On Tuesday, he had a much better result on Tuesday. Reimer stopped 37 out of 38 shots — some of them in spectacular fashion — in the Hurricanes’ 4-1 win over the Rangers. It is fitting that this performance took place in, of all places, Toronto.

3. Sean Monahan, Calgary Flames. Monahan was the big offensive star for the Flames on Tuesday with a goal and two assists in their win over the Jets. Two of those points (his goal and his first assist) came on the power play as he helped that unit score three goals to drive the offense in the win.

Highlights of the Night

Sebastian Aho had a massive series for the Hurricanes and capped it off with a two-goal effort on Tuesday. This goal is especially beautiful.

This J.T. Miller shot is about as perfect of a shot as you can get off the rush.

This was one of the most incredible sequences for Reimer in his Game 3 performance for the Hurricanes.

Factoids

Wednesday’s Schedule

Game 3: New York Islanders vs. Florida Panthers, 12 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Islanders lead 2-0)
Game 3: Arizona Coyotes vs. Nashville Predators, 2:30 p.m. ET (Series tied 1-1)
Round-Robin: Boston Bruins vs. Tampa Bay Lightning, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN
Round-Robin: Colorado Avalanche vs. Dallas Stars, 6:30 p.m. ET
Game 3: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Montreal Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Series tied 1-1)
Game 3: Edmonton Oilers vs. Chicago Blackhawks, 10:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Series tied 1-1)

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.

Canucks top players shine in Game 2 win over Wild

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After getting shut out in Game 1 of their qualifying round series the Vancouver Canucks needed their top players to bounce back with a big game on Tuesday.

They got exactly that type of performance in a 4-3 win to even their series with the Minnesota Wild.

Tanner Pearson opened the scoring for the Canucks just 24 seconds into the first period to get their offense rolling and set the tone for a big night for the team’s top-six group of forwards.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

J.T. Miller‘s goal at the three-minute of the second period — an absolute laser of a snap shot off the rush that picked the corner on Alex Stalock — gave Vancouver 2-1 lead, while Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat all added insurance goals late in the game. Boeser’s goal was the first postseason goal of his career, while standout rookie Quinn Hughes picked up an assist on Horvat’s third period power play goal that would end up going in the books as the game-winner.

Depth is the biggest question mark for this Canucks team and if they are going to have any chance of making any noise this postseason it is going to have to be through their top-six. If that group does not score and carry the offense there really is not much else throughout the lineup that can make up for that.

On Tuesday, Boeser, Miller, Horvat, Pearson, and Elias Pettersson all found the scoresheet, while defenders Hughes and Alex Edler combined for three assists.

Just about the only negative for the Canucks on Tuesday is the fact veteran forwards Micheal Ferland and Antoine Roussel were both injured. Roussel logged just four minutes of ice-time while Ferland played only two minutes.

While the final score looks close, the Canucks were in control of this game for most of the night and held a 4-1 lead until there were two minutes remaining on the clock. It was at that point that Kevin Fiala continued his torrid goal-scoring pace by adding two more goals, giving him 16 goals in his past 15 games dating back to the regular season. He already has three goals in the first two games of the series. His second goal came with just 8.8 seconds to play in regulation.

Game 3 of the series will take place on Thursday afternoon.

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.

Hurricanes complete sweep, eliminate Rangers

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Thanks to their 4-1 win on Tuesday night the Carolina Hurricanes are the first team to advance through the qualifying round.

They eliminated the New York Rangers in a clean three-game sweep in a series that turned out to be a fairly obvious mismatch.

Simply put, the Rangers were no match for Carolina and had no answer for anything they were doing.

The Rangers scored just four goals in the three games and played with the lead for only three minutes in the entire series. Those three minutes came early in the second period of Tuesday’s game when Chris Kreider scored just 12 seconds into the second period to give them a 1-0 lead.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Just three minutes later Carolina’s Teuvo Teravainen completely an absolutely dominant shift by his line by beating Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin with a backhander from the slot.

It was Shesterkin’s first start of the series after missing the first two games. He played well, but did not get anywhere near enough support from the team in front of him. It certainly wasn’t for a lack of effort. It was just the simple fact that Carolina is a faster, more talented, and better team and it was on display throughout the entire series.

Given the way they played in this series the Hurricanes are looking like a team that nobody in the Eastern Conference is going to want to play this postseason. They are already coming off of a surprise run to the Eastern Conference Final a year ago and have one of the league’s most exciting young cores in place. Teravainen, Andrei Svechnikov, and Sebastian Aho all shined in this series and played at a dominant level, while the Hurricanes’ defense was smothering even though it received zero minutes from one of its top players in Dougie Hamilton.

Aho was especially dominant during the season, scoring two more goals on Tuesday to finish with seven points.

His first goal of the game was a highlight reel goal that helped put the game out of reach.

He added an empty net goal later in the game.

James Reimer got his first start of the postseason for the Hurricanes and played brilliantly, stopping 37 shots in the win.

As for the Rangers, they now return home and will have a 12.5 percent chance of winning the No. 1 overall draft pick in the second phase of the NHL’s draft lottery.

This was always going to be a rebuilding year for them, and there were some very promising developments along the way, but it was clear in this series they are not quite ready to be a contender and have some significant holes that need addressed. With Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Adam Fox, and Shesterkin there is a strong core in place, but the depth and the defense need a lot of help.

It also seems entirely possible — if not likely — that their Game 2 loss on Monday could have been the final game Henrik Lundqvist plays for the Rangers.

(6) Carolina Hurricanes vs. (11) New York Rangers (Hurricanes win series 3-0)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Hurricanes 3, Rangers 2 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Hurricanes 4, Rangers 1 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Hurricanes 4, Rangers 1

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.

Flames bounce back with Game 3 rout, push Jets to brink

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This time the Calgary Flames were able to take advantage of a shorthanded Winnipeg Jets team.

After dropping Game 2 on Monday, the Flames bounced back on Tuesday evening with a 6-2 rout in Game 3 of their qualifying round series to take a 2-1 series lead, pushing the Jets to the brink of elimination.

They will have a chance to close out the series in Game 4 from Edmonton on Thursday.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The Jets were once again without the services of star forwards Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine, and the lack of firepower caught up with them in a big way on Tuesday. Nikolaj Ehlers did strike with an early goal (his second in as many games) to give them an early lead, but it would prove to be a short-lived advantage as Calgary’s Elias Lindholm scored the equalizer just 14 seconds later.

The Jets would never regain the lead.

The Flames ended up getting goals from six different players, and it was an especially big day for some of their top stars.

Sean Monahan finished with three points (a goal and two assists), while Mikael Backlund, Johnny Gaudreau, Andrew Mangiapane, and Lindholm all had two points, while Matthew Tkachuk and Milan Lucic also added goals.

Starting goalie Cam Talbot stopped 33 out of 35 shots in the win.

This was always going to be a tough series for the Jets to get through even before the injuries started to pile up in Game 1. They have a limited defense and were going to need Conor Hellebuyck to carry them in net. When you take two players as good as Scheifele and Laine out of the equation, it eliminates pretty much any room they may have had for error. Without them recipe is going to have to look exactly like Monday’s Game 2 win with great goaltending and just enough offense to scratch out a win. They did not get either of those elements on Tuesday.

It remains to be seen if Scheifele or Laine will be ready for Thursday’s game.

(8) Calgary Flames vs. (9) Winnipeg Jets (Series tied 1-1)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Flames 4, Jets 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Jets 3, Flames 2 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Flames 6, Jets 2
Thursday, Aug. 6: Flames vs. Jets*, TBD
Saturday, Aug. 8: Jets vs. Flames*, TBD

MORE:
• 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

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.