It’s been a long five years since the Vegas Golden Knights last competed in the Stanley Cup Final. Now, few fan bases will pity the “drought” that Golden Knights fans have experienced, considering one-third of the franchise’s six seasons have now resulted in a trip to the final two. However, after the success of the expansion season imbued a sense of confidence and expectation, the trip back has been a roller coaster.
And now, Vegas is here.
With a hot 3-0 start, a two-game stumble and an emphatic series-clinching 6-0 Game 6 victory, the Golden Knights ousted the Dallas Stars, claimed the Campbell Bowl as champions of the Western Conference and are back to take another shot at the Stanley Cup. On the strength of another series triumph and with history looming against the Florida Panthers (T-Mobile Arena will host Game 1 on Saturday at 8:00 pm), let’s get a closer look at some key takeaways.
Golden Knights Finish Angry
After Vegas took a 3-0 lead over Dallas, thanks to a pair of overtime wins and a dominant 4-0 shutout in Game 3, the Stars showed some fight with a 3-2 overtime win in Game 4 on the strength of a pair of Jason Robertson goals and Joe Pavelski’s OT heroics. In Game 5, however, the Golden Knights effectively gifted their opponents with a win and some series momentum.
Their 4-2 loss saw Vegas give the puck away 24 times, tying a franchise record for the most in a single playoff game (from ‘Golden Knights give away Game 5 with historically poor puck management,’ The Athletic, 05/28/2023). The performance prompted head coach Bruce Cassidy to exasperatedly offer his now-infamous soundbite that “I’m not sure you’re beating the Arizona Coyotes in January with 24 giveaways.”
A cheap shot against a lowly organization with plenty of their own issues aside, Cassidy’s frustration was surely matched by that of the team. That could be part of what sent them roaring out of the gate in Game 6 in Dallas, as the Golden Knights scored three first-period goals and never really looked back en route to a 6-0 drubbing. Led by William Karlsson’s two goals and one assist and Adin Hill’s 23-save shutout, the one-sided Game 6 served to bring renewed momentum after their Game 5 stinker.
Had Vegas lost Game 6, they would have been staring down a Game 7 in which Dallas carried all the momentum and boasted a coach — former Golden Knights bench boss Pete DeBoer — who held a 7-0 career record in such games. The fire that the club emerged with on Monday night was as impressive as it was necessary.
Misfits Come Alive
The Misfits line of William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith has long since been split up, but Vegas fans still celebrate the dynamic trio. That’s why it’s been so rewarding to see them — Karlsson and Marchessault, in particular — thrive in the postseason.
Karlsson scored a whopping five goals in the six-game series, or just nine fewer than he managed while playing all 82 games over the 2022-23 regular season. The 30-year-old Swede book-ended the series with multi-goal games by scoring two in Game 1 and another two in Game 6, thus increasing his postseason goal total this spring to 10.
Marchessault, meanwhile, continued to do what he’s been doing for the entire postseason. With another four goals and three assists, he upped his playoff point total to 17 (nine goals, eight assists), one shy of Jack Eichel for the team lead. The 32-year-old scored one of the series’ biggest goals, delivering the equalizer with just over two minutes to play in Game 2 and setting the table for Chandler Stephenson’s overtime winner.
With the Panthers sweeping the Carolina Hurricanes to book their spot in the Cup Final, much of the early Conn Smythe buzz has centered on Matthew Tkachuk and Sergei Bobrovsky. But if Vegas can complete its mission, any of Karlsson, Marchessault or Eichel could wind up as deserving candidates.
A year ago at this time, the Golden Knights had just fired DeBoer and were still licking their wounds after their first non-playoff season in franchise history. More significantly, there was a looming sense that the club’s expensive, veteran-heavy roster was trending in the wrong direction and that the 2022-23 season could represent a crossroads. Who in the organization could have even dreamed of such a scenario?
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Not only are the Golden Knights four wins away from the Cup, but they also find themselves in the role of favorites, owning home-ice advantage against an eighth-seeded Florida team that they finished 19 points ahead of in the regular season.
As the Hurricanes, Toronto Maple Leafs and Presidents’ Trophy-winning Boston Bruins will tell you, dismiss Florida at your own peril. The three opponents that the Panthers have already vanquished all had as many or more regular-season points as Vegas. Still, the Golden Knights have to like their chances against the plucky underdogs. While Florida looks to be a team on the rise with a 25-year-old foundational superstar in Tkachuk, Vegas is healthy, balanced, focused and seems ready for what’s to come.
The Golden Knights’ expansion season marked an unprecedented fairy-tale run that will likely never happen again. Even still, there was more to accomplish. This time around, there is no sense of complacency in simply getting to the Stanley Cup Final. This is an established, playoff-tested Vegas team that wants to win it all.