By Steve Silverman
The Stanley Cup playoffs started less than a week ago, and one team has already made it through to the second rounds.
Shockingly, it is the Vegas Golden Knights, the first-year expansion team that won the Pacific Division title.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be a shocker. This team came out of the gate firing, and played as consistently as any of the other 30 teams in Gary Bettman’s fiefdom, and the move into the playoffs came naturally for head coach Gerard Gallant.
The Knights took apart the Kings in four low-scoring games, and while the margin was just one goal in three of the Vegas wins, the Golden Knights were in charge.
In the Game 2 victory at home, the Knights dominated both overtime periods and controlled the action before Erik Haula scored the game-winner against Jonathan Quick. Vegas could have made a mistake and turned the puck over at any point, and they still probably would have won. That’s because goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was at his best throughout the series.
He blanked the Kings twice and gave up a total of three goals in the series. The Kings simply had no clue as how to beat him or get through the Vegas defense.
That defense was on display in the third period of Game 4. As the Kings desperately tried to tie the score, the Golden Knights were simply in the way of every rush and challenged every pass. Fleury was forced to make a couple of challenging saves but the defense simply smothered the Kings every step of the way.
Much of the Golden Knights’ excellent all-around play came from the confidence that Fleury’s play has given them.
“Those are small details but they are huge momentum changers and he had them the entire series,” forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare said. “Our next shift was unbelievable because of that save.”
So, if the question is whether Fleury is getting the job done or the defense is stopping their opponents, the answer is both of them are working together in concert.
The Golden Knights have passed their first playoff test, and it is fairly obvious that they will be squaring off with the San Jose Sharks in the second round.
San Jose has ripped off three straight wins over the Anaheim Ducks, and head coach Pete DeBoer’s team is getting excellent production from Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Evander Kane, and goalie Martin Jones has a 1.00 goals-against average and a .970 save percentage.
That’s nearly as impressive as Fleury, who has a 0.65 GAA and a .977 save percentage.
While it would seem likely that the next round will be a goal-tending duel, playoff hockey is full of surprises. The low-scoring series of the first round could turn out to be an offensive showcase in the second round.
The Golden Knights are equipped to win either type of series, and they show no signs of resting on their laurels.
Avs not ready to fade away
The Colorado Avalanche made the playoffs on the final day of the regular season, as they beat the St. Louis Blues to earn the second wild-card spot and a chance to meet the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Nashville Predators.
So far, so good for the Avs. While they lost the first two games in Nashville, the Avs scored the opening goal in both games. They were on even terms after 40 minutes of Game 1, and they nearly made a comeback complete in Game 2 before falling one goal short.
However, there were no regrets in either game, and when the Avs came home for Game 3, they dictated the pace throughout and came away with a 5-3 win.
It is all about Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog at this point. Both have scored five points, as MacKinnon has used his speed to push the Preds off balance, awhile Landeskog has been opportunistic.
The Preds are loaded with talented, and it does not seem probable that Filip Forsberg, Viktor Avidsson, Ryan Johansen, Roman Josi or P.K. Subban will let the Avs gets any closer.
The Preds are the hunted this year, and every opponent knows how good they are. Nashivlle was the eighth seed a year ago and they were able to sneak up on opponents make it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.
They are a better team this year, but they will absorb shots every step of the way, and it may be more of a challenge to get to the top.
Pastrnak on top of scoring list
It’s very early in the process, but David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins is on top of the league’s playoff scorers. Pastrnak has nine points (three goals and six assists) after three games – the same total he had after the first two games of the series.
Pastrnak was victimized by Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen and the goal post in Game 3, when Pasta was held off the scoreboard in Toronto’s 4-2 victory.
Sidney Crosby of the Penguins, Artemi Panarin of the Blue Jackets and John Carlson of the Capitals have seven points while Nikita Kucherov of the Lightning and Boston’s Brad Marchand have six points each.
On the goalie front, Fleury is at the top of the list followed by Jones, and Matt Murray of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Murray has a 1.71 GAA and a .928 save percentage.
On the other end, Andersen has a 4.54 GAA and an .885 save percentage. Rinne is also struggling with a 4.15 GAA and an .861 save percentage.
Cory Schneider has replaced Keith Kinkaid in the New Jersey net. Schneider has a 1.42 GAA and a .957 save percentage, while Kinkaid had a 5.88 GAA and a putrid .804 save percentage.