As the NHL’s season heads into its second half the Vegas Golden Knights remain the league’s most improbable success story.
Their 2-1 loss in St. Louis on Thursday night snapped what had been an eight-game winning streak that had helped propel them to the second best record in the NHL and the top spot in the Western Conference. For a team that didn’t even exist at this time a year ago and was pieced together in an expansion draft their current record is nothing short of unbelievable.
Through their first 39 games they have already won more games than Minnesota, Ottawa, Tampa Bay, Atlanta and San Jose all won in their debut seasons, and they are just one win away from matching what Columbus and Nashville did in their first seasons.
Even if we take into account that the expansion draft rules this time around gave them more talent than those previous expansion teams, it is still a stunning start because even teams that have been established and building for years don’t typically win this many games through the first half of the season.
Since the NHL introduced the three-point game at the start of the 2005-06 season there have only been 19 teams that have recorded at least 56 points through their first 39 games.
That includes this season’s Golden Knights and Tampa Bay Lightning.
What’s so fascinating about this isn’t just the fact that Vegas is off to one of the best starts of any NHL team over the past 13 years, it’s how well teams that start the way they do end up doing the rest of the season. They not only make the playoffs, they tend to do very, very well once they get there.
All 17 of the previous teams made the playoffs.
Five of them (the 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings, 2008-09 San Jose Sharks, 2010-11 Vancouver Canucks, 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks, 2015-16 Washington Capitals) won the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular season team.
Five of them (2016-17 Pittsburgh Penguins, 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks, 2010-11 Vancouver Canucks 2008-09 Detroit Red Wings, and 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings) ended up reaching the Stanley Cup Final.
Three of them (2016-17 Penguins, 2012-13 Blackhawks, and 2007-08 Red Wings) actually won the Stanley Cup
Another three (2013-14 Chicago Blackhawks, 2012-13 Pittsburgh Penguins, and 2011-12 New York Rangers) ended up reaching the Conference Final.
Three other teams (the 2015-16 Washington Capitals, 2015-16 Dallas Stars, the 2005-06 Ottawa Senators) made it to the second round. Only six of the teams failed to get out of the first round.
What’s even more impressive is that as the season has gone the Golden Knights have not only continued to win, but they’ve actually seemed to keep getting better as the season has gone on.
While their early season success was largely percentage driven (specifically when it comes to their goaltending) they have steadily become a better possession team and are currently 15th in the league with a 50.7 percent Corsi, putting them directly between the Nashville Predators and Los Angeles Kings. Their PDO (even-strength save percentage plus shooting percentage) is 100.7, right around where it should be, indicating they’re not really benefitting from some crazy or unsustainable “luck.”
They are just … good.
But we’re about to find out exactly how good they are. Through the first half Vegas has been an absolutely dominant team at home, posting a 17-2-1 record. That still leaves a pretty respectable 10-8-1 record on the road. Now Vegas has to play 11 of its next 15 games on the road during a stretch features some pretty daunting matchups including games at Chicago, Nashville, Tampa Bay, Winnipeg, Washington, Pittsburgh, and San Jose.
It remains to be seen where the Golden Knights go in the second half, but they have absolutely given themselves quite a cushion in the standings and have at least put themselves in a position to get in the playoffs. If recent history is any indication they might even have a chance to make some noise once they get there.