The Vegas Golden Knights were licking their wounds three weeks ago around the time of the NHL trade deadline.
After a failed and mildly humiliating attempt to dump Evgenii Dadonov on the Anaheim Ducks, Vegas was shut out on consecutive nights by the Minnesota Wild and Winnipeg Jets in a 36-hour span after officially finalizing its roster. Suddenly the overwhelming preseason favorites in the Pacific Division were in a precarious spot well outside of the postseason picture, and with the teams they were chasing in both the division and wild card boasting as many as four games in hand.
In their efforts to be great, it seemed the Golden Knights stretched themselves too thin this time. As a result, and for the first time ever in franchise history, the expansion team that became an immediate power broker wouldn’t be involved in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
In order to reverse the momentum toward that, two things needed to happen.
For one, Vegas needed to start winning games. But most importantly, another team had to stumble. Unfortunately for the Golden Knights, the teams that were in closest touch — Dallas and Edmonton — have been two of the eight hottest teams in the NHL since the trade deadline.
Failure needed to come from perhaps a more unlikely source, and the one team that didn’t boast the benefit of extra games on the schedule.
Enter the Los Angeles Kings.
Los Angeles has lost three straight games and six of its last nine since the Golden Knights suffered those shutout losses after the deadline. For Vegas, it has resulted in a four-point swing, and a game secured in hand, with the Golden Knights rattling off six wins from seven — which happened to include some heroics from Dadonov — over the same time period.
Los Angeles might have a decidedly easier schedule down the stretch, but destiny is suddenly and now firmly within the Golden Knights’ control. The expectation should be that Vegas survives the most difficult regular season in its short history and salvages a postseason spot.
Which is horrible news for other Western Conference contenders, and more specifically the two Alberta-based teams leading the Pacific Division and the overwhelming favourites to reach the Stanley Cup Final.
How does Vegas alter the postseason picture?
The driving force behind Vegas’s struggles has been that the roster couldn’t be fully formed until the postseason when salaries become moot. Management made serious sacrifices to ice the best possible lineup in the spring, which of course would this time include star center Jack Eichel.
Since Eichel’s acquisition in early November, the former Buffalo Sabres captain and current Golden Knights letter wearer, Mark Stone, haven’t been featured on the same lineup sheet. Both have had lengthy injury-related absences, of course, but it has been complications with the salary cap that has prevented the Golden Knights from being at their postseason best in this uncertain stretch drive.
It’s expected that Stone will re-enter the lineup as early as Tuesday, which is no small thing over the last 10 games or so. However, it will force another considerable earner — or a combination of earners — onto the long-term injured reserve in his place. If not through Stone or Eichel, money needs to be buried one way or another when operating more than $10 million over the salary cap.
It can take a step toward optimization with Stone on the verge, but not until it wins the race versus Los Angeles can Vegas be what Kelly McCrimmon and George McPhee have envisioned all along: a team not bound by the constraints of the salary cap, and therefore capable of doing some serious damage.
If Vegas does make it, the expectation should be that it will draw a team also financially handcuffed, but in a less advantageous way. The Edmonton Oilers are using long-term injured reserve, but not in a manner which will benefit them in any way come the postseason. Edmonton would come as advertised: star-laden and top-heavy, but vulnerable in many key areas. If not a coin flip, it’s exceedingly possible the Golden Knights would be favored in that series.
While an important season for Edmonton, it might be the Calgary Flames ruing the Golden Knights’ late-season resurgence most. Calgary has had a sensational turnaround behind Darryl Sutter and show very few weaknesses overall. Its top line has arguably been the best in hockey, its defense is rock solid and Jakob Markstrom will likely be nominated for the Vezina Trophy.
It had been setting up as the path of least resistance for the Flames, who would be overwhelming favorites to reach the Western Conference final. But with the Golden Knights in their bracket, the prospects seem less certain.
The last team that should be taking notice of the Golden Knights sitting up out of their own coffin, Undertaker-style, should be the future back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy-winning Colorado Avalanche and the team most expect to win the Stanley Cup.
Vegas is, in many ways, Colorado’s bugaboo, after dominating the Avalanche over the course of four games in last season’s playoffs to reverse an 0-2 deficit and reach the conference finals.
Even more so than the Flames, what seems certain becomes less so with Colorado as long as the Golden Knights are lurking.
It can’t be an optimal postseason without a Vegas team that has made so many concessions to be its best possible self for the postseason.
While that’s bad news for the teams they may encounter, it’s what every hockey fan outside of Los Angeles should be rooting to see.
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