It was an amazing season for the Vegas Golden Knights, easily the most successful team in the history of the National Hockey League expansion era. Despite losing in the Stanley Cup Finals to the Washington Capitals, dropping the decisive game on home ice at T-Mobile Arena, there were many amazing moments this season for NHL fans in Las Vegas to appreciate. Even dropping four straight games for the first time all year at the worst time provided some highlights for the Golden Knights, however. The team was that good.
As the NHL heads into its offseason, we want to look back on the season that was while also looking forward to the 2018-2019 season ahead of Vegas. The bar has been set pretty high for the Golden Knights going forward, of course, although seasoned hockey fans know every year is a different one, so anything can happen—and often does. So as we bid you farewell for the summer, enjoy our look back at the 2017-2018 season.
What Happened Last Season?
The Vegas Golden Knights started out the season winning eight of their first nine games, and then they ran into some health problems at the goaltending position. Down to the No. 4 goalie on the organizational depth chart by Game 11, the Golden Knights somehow persevered until No. 1 net minder Marc-Andre Fleury returned from a concussion in December. Then, the Golden Knights took off, winning 12 of 13 games at one point to take control of the Pacific Division.
The team was in the race for the Presidents' Trophy for much of the second half of the season, and although Vegas did not win that prize, the team did win the division while clinching home ice for the first two rounds of the playoffs at the same time. That proved to be beneficial, as the Golden Knights swept the Los Angeles Kings in the first round and defeated the San Jose Sharks in the second round to advance to the Western Conference Finals against the Winnipeg Jets.
After dropping the first game of the conference finals on the road, the Golden Knights won the next four against the Jets to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals in their first season of existence. Vegas then won Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals on home ice at T-Mobile Arena to push its postseason win streak to five games, matching its best effort previously from the first and second rounds. However, the Washington Capitals—on a redemption mission of their own—handed Vegas four straight losses to claim the Cup. It was the first time all season the Golden Knights lost four straight games.
1. C William Karlsson: He led the NHL in plus/minus rating (49) as well as shot percentage (23.4%) on his way to posting 78 points in 82 games. Karlsson led a balanced scoring attack for the Golden Knights, scoring 43 goals to set an expansion-team record. His 35 assists also placed him fourth on the team and demonstrated his all-around abilities. Karlsson did plenty on defense, too, earning the most defensive point shares of any non-defensive skater on the roster. Oh, and did we mention he posted the first hat trick in team history, too? Karlsson added a second one for good measure, the only player to do it for Vegas this season.
2. G Marc-Andre Fleury: The Flower had his best regular season ever in terms of goals-against average (2.24) and save percentage (.927). He did miss two months early with the concussion, suffered in the fourth game of the season, but perhaps that kept him fresh at age 33 for the extended postseason run that was so brilliant for the first three rounds of play. Even though he didn't post the first shutout in team history, Fleury did finish with four on the season. Getting 46 quality starts out of the three-time Cup winner was just about as much as the team could have hoped for when it selected him first in the expansion draft last June.
3. C Jon Marchessault: He finished second on the team in scoring, posting 75 points in 77 games to go along with the plus-36 rating. His 48 assists ranked second on the team as well. Defensively, the smaller skater (Marchessault is just five-foot-nine) delivered 99 hits during the regular season, showing he wasn't afraid to mix it up in the defensive zone. His 40 penalty minutes also set a career high; it may not sound like much, but he was fourth on the team in PIM. Marchessault did his fair share of scoring and playing tough hockey this year when he needed to do so.
4. RW Reilly Smith: With 60 points in 67 games, Smith set a career high in scoring despite missing 15 games to injury, most of them toward the end of the season as the team closed in on the division title. He might have been higher on this list if not for the missed games, really. His plus-31 rating was a career best, too. Smith was basically the most-valuable "glue" guy on this roster all season. He did a lot of things really well without being particularly outstanding in any one single area. Smith is one of those guys you cannot win without in the NHL these days, even if he doesn't get a lot of the headlines.
5. D Nate Schmidt: He anchored the blue line, averaging over 22 minutes of ice time per game to lead the team. Schmidt also blocked 121 shots, while adding some punch on offense, too. With 36 points, he more than doubled his prior career high, and his ten assists on the power play were third best on the team. Not a physical presence but a speedy one, Schmidt logged the most takeaways (57) of any defenseman on the Golden Knights. His combination of offensive and defensive ability truly helped the Vegas blue line more than anyone could have predicted back in October when the season began.
Highlight of the Year
There are a lot of options here, but we have to go with Karlsson's goal that clinched the Pacific Division title in the final home game of the regular season. Not only was the goal itself quite meaningful—winning the division also guaranteed home ice for the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs, which proved to be huge—but the way Karlsson scored it and who he scored it against have added weight in this discussion. The San Jose Sharks still had hopes for the division title when this game was played, and the best goalie in Sharks history was in the net. Therefore, for Karlsson to pull off this move against Martin Jones with so much on the line, and to do it shorthanded no less in front of the hometown crowd ... well, it's the goal of the year perhaps in the entire NHL.
For as long as we live, we will never get tired of watching that. Truly.
What's Next for the Golden Knights?
The offseason will be tricky, as the team has contracts to consider and absolutely cannot stand still on its laurels. As great as Fleury was this season, for example, he may have worn down by the time the Finals came around. His two-month absence early kept him strong through his first 57 starts, but at age 34 next season, that won't be practical again. Fleury cannot get 62 starts again next year (postseason included). Also, the Golden Knights cannot rely on the amazing performances they got from the other three goalies in Fleury's absence. Cutting Fleury's workload back a bit down the stretch of the regular season might have cost Vegas the NHL title, in truth.
One of the strengths of this team was the molding of the roster done by Head Coach Gerard Gallant and General Manager George McPhee for the style of play and the locker room chemistry. Hopefully, that will continue into the future, so whatever new players come in have to buy into the system. The Golden Knights don't need to chase big-name free agents; they need to chase the right free agents.
They have a great fan base in Vegas, and the atmosphere at T-Mobile was electric all season. That will not change. The other teams in the Pacific Division are going to look at what made the Golden Knights successful and try to emulate it somewhat. It's always tougher to do it the second time, and this summer's roster movements will go a long way to determining how Vegas does in its second NHL season.
However, until Gallant and McPhee fail, they have the faith of the fans and the trust of the experts to keep this machine rolling indefinitely into the future. Even if a crazy number of things went right for the Golden Knights this year, a lot still went wrong, too. This was not a fluke. We expect to see Vegas in the NHL playoffs next season, too.