Golden Knights looking like a major Stanley Cup threat

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Let’s talk about the Vegas Golden Knights for a bit, because they are starting to emerge as one of the top Stanley Cup contenders in the Western Conference.

They enter Monday’s game in Edmonton in first-place in the Pacific Division and are one of the league’s hottest teams having won 10 of their past 12 games, while also owning a 14-5-2 record since the hiring of new coach Peter DeBoer.

It’s not just the recent results that make them such a threat right now in the West. It’s the fact they are starting to systematically dominate teams. It is the perfect storm of the right results and the right process.

So what’s happening in Vegas that is making them such a threat?

They have tightened things up defensively

Just to make it clear at the start: I was very critical of their decision to fire coach Gerard Gallant earlier this season and replace him with Peter DeBoer. Not because DeBoer isn’t a good coach (He is, as is Gallant), but because the problems in Vegas at the time seemed to be more of a goaltending issue than anything relating to coaching.

But fair is fair to DeBoer, and the Golden Knights have definitely improved their overall performance defensively.

The table below shows some of their 5-on-5 defensive metrics under the two coaches, including shot attempts against, shot attempt differential, expected goals against, goals against, and save percentage.

The goaltending still hasn’t been where they want it to be, and while they were still a top-10 team in some key defensive metrics under Gallant, they have been quite literally the league’s best under DeBoer.

The big change is in dramatic decrease in total shot attempts against, as well as the way they have cut down on the scoring chances and expected goals against. Even though the goaltending performance has remained similar, the defensive play in front of them has definitely improved.

The type of performance we are seeing from the right now is one that is usually reserved for Stanley Cup teams.

Robin Lehner gives them an intriguing option

Speaking of the goaltending situation, it’s going to be interesting to see how this situation unfolds down the stretch and into the playoffs.

Marc-Andre Fleury has been the face of the franchise from the moment he was acquired in the expansion draft, and overall he’s been a rock for them in net. But the fact of the matter is that his overall performance has regressed this season, and outside of a handful of random games in February it hasn’t really consistently improved.

But with Robin Lehner now in the mix the Golden Knights have a very intriguing Plan B in place.

One of their biggest weaknesses the past two years has been the lack of a quality backup behind Fleury. It forced Fleury to take on a huge workload (not great for a goalie in his mid-30s) and had no safety net in case of an injury or poor play.

They not only have a great Plan B, their Plan B also happens to be one of the league’s best goalies the past two years, and he is 3-0 with a .940 save percentage since joining the Golden Knights at the trade deadline.

Forget the star power and reputations, there is no reason why that job should not be up for debate and an open competition down the stretch. If one of them emerges and solidifies that spot, it would take this team to an entirely different level.

Max Pacioretty has been amazing, and Mark Stone will be back

The Golden Knights may not have a true superstar in their lineup, but their top-end talent is legit. Leading the way is Pacioretty (he got a mention in this week’s MVP Power Rankings) who is having one of the best seasons of his career, driving play like a champion and scoring at close to a 40-goal pace.

As a team, they have six forwards scoring at a 20-goal pace over 82 games, while they have also played the past six games (4-2-0 record) without perhaps their best overall forward, Mark Stone.

They should have a very manageable playoff path

This might be one of the biggest things working in their favor.

There are a ton of factors that go into winning in the playoffs, from playing well, to health, to goaltending, to luck, to simply getting the right matchups.

Obviously nothing is a guarantee, but whether the Golden Knights finish first or second in the Pacific Division they should have an extremely manageable path through at least the first two rounds. They would almost certainly be favorites against any team they play in Rounds 1 and 2, while there remains a pretty significant gap between the top contenders in the Western Conference and the next tier of contenders.

Look at it this way: As of publication on Monday afternoon, only one of their potential playoff matchups in Rounds 1 or 2 (Edmonton) of the playoffs ranks higher than 15th in the league in points percentage, while several of their potential early matchups (Calgary, Minnesota, Winnipeg, Arizona, Nashville) are all in the 18-23 range.

It is entirely possible that they would not have to play a top-15 NHL team in the playoffs until a potential Western Conference Final matchup.

They still have to play the games and they still have actually win once they get there, but the way things are shaping up right now with their overall play and potential postseason path the Golden Knights should be one of the top teams to watch for coming out of the Western Conference.

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.