LAS VEGAS — At the betting tables in Las Vegas, exhilarating highs and devastating lows are commonplace. For the city’s NHL team, the Golden Knights, that volatility may have transferred to the ice.
After reaching the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural year, the Golden Knights have spent much of this season toward the bottom of the standings.
“Everybody has bigger expectations for the team, and every player has bigger expectation for themselves,” goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. “We all know we can be better and it feels like we should win every night. Maybe we were getting frustrated as a team thinking maybe we should get those wins.”
But of late, the Golden Knights (14-13-1) have been one of the NHL’s hottest teams, adding another confounding piece to their brief but fascinating history. On Tuesday, they host the defending champion Washington Capitals in a finals rematch.
The word “regression” has been thrown around liberally in discussions of Vegas’ performance, particularly heading into this season. Most of their roster turned in career-best seasons in 2017-18, including Fleury and the top forward line.
Even during the team’s most disappointing stretches this season, though, the nontraditional statistics that seek to better measure puck possession, control of game flow and even luck suggested that the Golden Knights were actually one of NHL’s better performers. Their task has been reconciling those positive signals with below-average offense, goaltending, defense and power play.
“In some areas, they’ve shown the normal kind of regression you’d expect, and in other areas, it’s gone totally the other way,” said Andrew Berkshire, an advanced-stats analyst for Sportsnet. “Despite that, they’re actually playing like one of the best teams in the NHL this year.”
It has taken longer for the Golden Knights’ identity to crystallize this season. Last year, the team galvanized Las Vegas after the city was rocked by a mass shooting just before the season began and rallied around the moniker “the Golden Misfits.”
General Manager George McPhee was busy in the offseason, negotiating contract extensions for several core players and adding top forwards Max Pacioretty, via trade, and Paul Stastny, via free agency. But injuries to Stastny and speedy, versatile forward Erik Haula, and a 20-game suspension for defenseman Nate Schmidt for violating the league’s program on performance-enhancing substances, disrupted the Golden Knights’ chemistry.
Pacioretty said it was “one night on and one night off” throughout the early part of the season.
But Vegas has won five of its past six games, a stretch that included three shutouts by Fleury. Vegas outscored opponents by 24-10 during those six games.
Shortly before the streak, Berkshire said that Pacioretty and defenseman Colin Miller were candidates to heat up after cold starts. Pacioretty promptly posted 13 points in 10 games and Miller had seven in the same stretch. They had combined for only seven points in the Golden Knights’ first 18 games.
The Vegas dressing room did not have the air of despair often found elsewhere among struggling teams, something Berkshire suggested was vital to rediscovering their bravado.
“Sometimes, when teams have this kind of bad-luck bender at the beginning of the season, they just come apart and stop doing what they’re doing properly. They think, ‘Well, this isn’t working, we’re not winning,’ ” Berkshire said. “It’s easy to get everybody to buy in when everything’s working; that’s what happened last year. When it’s not working right away, then it becomes a question of how long you can sustain this high-level performance before bad luck starts to lead to poorer performance.”
The return of Schmidt on Nov. 18 has helped vault Vegas into the playoff picture. McPhee, who rewarded Schmidt with a contract extension during his suspension, described him as “the kind of defenseman every team in this league is looking for.”
Schmidt’s abilities to shadow opponents, initiate transition and create tempo are not unlike those of Stastny and Haula, who may both return this month.
Last month, as Schmidt neared a return from his suspension, he offered his observations from his temporary perch in the press box.
“We’re not playing the fast game that we’re accustomed to,” he said. “You can take that and branch it off to every other part of our game. “When we’re playing fast, you have effort, you have guys buying in, you have discipline and you have all those other things.”
Since Schmidt has been back practicing and playing with the Golden Knights, their pace, consistency and defensive-zone coverage have improved. They have won six of eight games with Schmidt during a critical stretch that was heavy on Pacific Division games.
“That’s the group that I remember seeing,” Schmidt said. “That’s the game we play, that’s our style. If we can start to continue to build with that, bring that to each game, I think we’re going to have a great chance to go on a run and get guys the confidence to know that you can do it for more than just a game, two games, three games, to do it for a month, for two months and keep going.”