LAS VEGAS — With a surprising run to the Pacific Division title, the expansion Vegas Golden Knights were the feel-good story of the regular season in the National Hockey League.
Now the question is can they continue their storybook season in the Stanley Cup Playoffs? The Golden Knights (51-24-7) host the Los Angeles Kings (45-29-8) in the first game of their best-of-seven first round series on Wednesday night at T-Mobile Arena.
Vegas will be playing a veteran Kings squad that has held up the hardware twice over the last seven seasons. But the Golden Knights have a goalie in Marc-Andre Fleury (29-13-4, 2.24 goals against average) who was a key performer on three Stanley Cup champions in Pittsburgh, including each of the last two seasons, and have other veterans like forward James Neal who made it to the finals last year with Nashville.
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Both will be counted on to provide the kind of leadership that will be necessary to advance in the playoffs.
“It’s more intense,” Fleury said of playoff hockey. “Every little play matters. Every win matters. I think it makes the stakes higher. … It’s fun hockey. Fun to watch.”
“Real excited,” Neal, who had 25 goals, said. “We’ve worked all year to put ourselves in this position, especially with home ice advantage. I think this city and this rink is going to be pretty crazy.”
Vegas finished 29-10-2 at home, where it sold out every contest. But it will be playing a Los Angeles team that split the season series and won both ends of a key back-to-back against the Golden Knights in late February, winning 3-2 in overtime at the Staples Center on a Dustin Brown power-play goal after Anze Kopitar tied it with 10.8 seconds remaining, and then coming back the next night at T-Mobile Arena for a convincing 4-1 victory.
“I don’t even remember that,” Kings defenseman Drew Doughty told reporters. “That’s a long time ago already. I know we’re not thinking about those two games. We’re just thinking about the opportunity in front of us, and I know they’re not thinking about it either. Really has no impact on this series. It’s a whole new series.”
The Golden Knights, who finished fifth in the NHL in scoring with an average of 3.3 goals per game, have five players with 20 or more goals, led by center William Karlsson’s 43, and will be playing a physical, hard-checking Kings’ team that ranked No. 1 in goals against (2.46) and penalty kill (85.0 percent) and has a goalie in Jonathan Quick (33-28-3, 2.40 GAA) who also has been the backbone of two Stanley Cup champions.
“It’s about playing fast,” Vegas coach Gerard Gallant, who has rotated four lines all season, said. “We’ve talked about that all year long. When you play fast and you forecheck well, you’re going to get turnovers. People turn over the puck. … You have to force them to turn over the puck. If you give good players time to make plays, they’re going to make them. When we play fast and we play quick, we’re a good team and we get a lot of turnovers.”
“They’ve been probably the fastest team all year, and teams have had a hard time handling that speed,” Brown, who has 28 goals, said. “We’ve got to find a way to limit their speed game. I think a lot of it comes from turnovers. They’re really quick in transition.”
Another big key: just how much do the Golden Knights have left in the tank after their emotional roller-coaster ride of a season? Vegas, which was an eye-popping 27-9-2 on Jan. 2, sputtered down the stretch, going just 10-8-3 including an 8-3 home loss to New Jersey and also a 7-1 season-ending clunker at Calgary, a game that Fleury was pulled from after stopping just 12 of the 18 shots he faced.
Doughty believes it comes down to “all the little things” to winning in the playoffs.
“Blocking shots, throwing pucks at the net,” Doughty said. “(There are) a lot of crappy goals that go in during the playoffs. That’s just how it is.”