Golden Knights retaining juggernaut status in early goings with stout play

The same principles that led to Vegas winning their first Stanley Cup last summer have propelled them to the best start in hockey this season.

There are few cliches as trite as the championship hangover, and playing in the Entertainment Capital of the World meant the Vegas Golden Knights surely would’ve been subject to thousands of parables about the nearby casino strip had they even remotely faltered out of the gate after their Stanley Cup victory.

Five games into the season, the Golden Knights have five wins, the best start to a season by a defending champion since the 1985-86 Edmonton Oilers — though we don’t need to discuss how Edmonton’s season ended that year, a horrific example of bad luck puncturing one of the all-time dynastic runs.

Vegas proved three maxims of playoff hockey to be true during their title run, with surplus depth scoring, elite goaltending and continuity prevailing. An extended summer gap has done nothing to deter the Golden Knights’ momentum, as they’ve simply started where they left off.

“I think it speaks volumes about the group of guys we have here,” Golden Knights goaltender Adin Hill said Tuesday via The Athletic’s Jesse Granger. “We didn’t take the start of the season lightly after coming off the win. We came to camp and got back to business. Everyone showed up in good shape and it’s showing.”

The Vegas Golden Knights have been unstoppable to start this season. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
The Vegas Golden Knights have been unstoppable to start this season. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

So, exactly how have the Golden Knights flattened their opponents during the opening stages of their title defense?

My colleague Anthony Petrielli wrote an excellent piece last week, explaining how the Golden Knights elect to play zone defense, rather than traditional man coverage. It’s a tough system to game plan for, as you can’t isolate individual defenders. Alec Martinez is the best shot-blocker in the NHL and he clogs up lanes while knowing his partner — normally the venerable Alex Pietrangelo — can recover for him, as the defense moves on a string and confuses opponents.

Brayden McNabb, another talented defender, makes minimal mistakes in his own end, continues to improve as a shot suppressor and leads all players with 14 blocked shots at 5-on-5 this year. McNabb and Shea Theodore form the second most-used pairing in the NHL thus far and while their 47.6 share of the expected goals at 5-on-5 isn’t remarkable, they’ve been on the ice for four goals for and one against, with a sparkling 97.37 on-ice save percentage. They’ve been nearly impenetrable, and with Martinez and Pietrangelo — both of whom are working their way back into the mix from injuries — Vegas has two legitimate shutdown pairings.

The Golden Knights are holding opponents to 23.8 shots per game at 5-on-5, and while a plus-two shot differential over five games may indicate that it’s not a tremendous advantage, the defensive structure and surplus goaltending is paying dividends.

It’s rare to see, but virtually every Vegas forward has bought into the idea of defensive responsibility within a zone defense format and it’s paying off. Although league-wide totals can be skewed early on in the season due to the varying number of games played, perpetual Selke finalist Mark Stone ranks first in takeaways at 5-on-5, while Jack Eichel and Nicolas Roy are within the top 15. They’re not sacrificing defense for offense, while Eichel and Stone continue to benefit from another season of offensive continuity.

Goaltending is the most difficult element of a team to evaluate year-over-year. Unless you’re Ilya Sorokin, Juuse Saros, Connor Hellebuyck, Igor Shesterkin or Andrei Vasilevskiy, all players with proven quantitative samples, it's hard to know what teams will be getting between the pipes.

Hill emerged as a star for the Golden Knights during their playoff run, nearly winning the Conn Smythe Trophy despite taking over midway through the playoffs. During this latest opening run, both Hill and partner Logan Thompson are playing at an elite level. At some point, regression will come due, but if you can roll two goalies interchangeably, it’s a luxury the vast majority of NHL teams could only dream of.

Continuity has also served the Golden Knights well and has certainly mattered for Vegas in the early goings. Reilly Smith is the lone major contributor from last year’s run that departed over the summer, traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a third-round pick.

Jack Eichel, for instance, is certainly benefiting during his second full season with the Golden Knights, and his partnership with Stone on the power play is an ideal mix of speed, power and defensive awareness. Eichel ranks first in all situations with 28 shots, while ranking sixth at 5-on-5 with 15 shots. He is a walking scoring chance and with an extra year together as teammates, bonded by a title, Stone knows exactly where Eichel likes the puck.

Vegas’s most commonly-used line of Eichel, Ivan Barbashev and Jonathan Marchessault has outshot its opponents 38-32 at 5-on-5, a true No. 1 scoring line that can be altered for more balance if need be, and so far, there’s been no need for tweaks.

It also helps when Eichel is capable of spectacular individual efforts as well. If you want to be cynical, yes, it’s the Ducks’ defense he’s dangling through here, but his unique, upright gait makes it nearly impossible to dislodge the puck when he’s accelerating through the neutral zone.

Vegas has benefited from top-line scoring, elite defensive play due to their zone defense that has forces opponents to restructure offensive tactics, and is getting elite shot-blocking and goaltending while displaying unmatched chemistry and continuity.

There’s no championship hangover for the Vegas Golden Knights. The party appears to be just getting started.