Golden Knights-Kings preview, pick: Why Vegas will keep rolling

ByGreg Wyshynski ESPN logo
Tuesday, April 10, 2018

In their own ways, these are two of the greatest stories in the NHL this season, albeit with one team regaining prominence and the other discovering it for the first time -- because, like, that team didn't exist before this season.

The Vegas Golden Knights (51-24-7, 109 points) are one of the most successful expansion teams in sports history, let alone in pro hockey. They blew past the previous high point total for an expansion team to become the first one to break 100 points. They set records for home and road wins. And, of course, they became the first expansion team to ever win a division title, as a team from the desert ruled the Pacific.

The Los Angeles Kings (45-29-8, 98 points) had struggled to maintain their dynastic pace for the past three seasons, missing the playoffs in two of them and going out in the first round in the other. That cost coach Darryl Sutter his job after the 2016-17 campaign. And lo and behold, half the roster found its smile again under John Stevens -- in particular center Anze Kopitar, who followed his worst season with his best.

First line. One wonders exactly how many Edible Arrangements theFlorida Panthers and Columbus Blue Jacketshave received from Vegas general manager George McPhee for their contributions to one of the most dominant top lines in the NHL. Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith and William Karlsson had a plus-141 in Corsi differential and a plus-23 in goal differential at even strength. Karlsson was third in the NHL with 43 goals. The constants on the Kings' top line are Kopitar (35-57-92), a Hart Trophy candidate, and Dustin Brown, who set a career high in points (61). They'll likely play with Tanner Pearson (15-25-40). Advantage: Golden Knights.

Depth. The scoring balance on the Golden Knights has been one of their greatest virtues this season, with strong seasons from Erik Haula (29 goals), James Neal (25 goals), David Perron (66 points) and Alex Tuch (15 goals). They're still waiting on deadline pickup Tomas Tatar to contribute more than six points in 20 games. The Kings played most of the season without Jeff Carter, who has roared back with 18 points in 21 games since returning. L.A. has minimal goal-scoring depth beyond that -- althoughTyler Toffoli (24) and Adrian Kempe (16) stand out -- in comparison with the rolling waves of offense from Vegas. Advantage: Golden Knights.

Defense. This conversation begins with Drew Doughty, with 60 points on the season and skating 26:50 per contest. He's a game-changer the likes the Golden Knights do not possess. Doughty has been paired with several defensemen this season, but his most effective partner remains Jake Muzzin. Alec Martinez and Dion Phaneuf are the second pairing, with the latter failing to really regain form after his trade to the Kings. The Knights have seen good play out of Nate Schmidt and Brayden McNabb (plus-11 even-strength goal differential) and OK play out of Deryk Engelland and Shea Theodore. Otherwise, they've dealt in volume: Eight defenders have played 30 games or more. Advantage: Kings.

Goaltending. Jonathan Quick won his second Jennings Trophy for contributing to his team's NHL-best 2.46 goals-against average. But it's another number worth paying attention to here: .921, which is career save percentage in the playoffs, even with a .886 flop in his last playoff season (2015-16). Marc-Andre Fleury, meanwhile, mended his tattered playoff reputation with a .924 performance in 15 games during the Penguins' 2017 Stanley Cup run. He has been remarkable for the Knights this season, with 29 wins in 46 games and a .927 save percentage. Advantage: Even.

Special teams. The Golden Knights had the NHL's 11th-best power play at 21.4 percent efficiency, while the Kings were 17th at 20.4 percent. Vegas was a shade better (24.2) at home, where obviously it has the advantage this series. Vegas was 14th in power-play chances with 248, while the Kings had 240. On the penalty kill, the Kings led the NHL at 85.0 percent effectiveness, while the Knights were 10th at 81.4 percent. L.A. didn't see much drop-off in its road penalty kill efficiency (83.8). Advantage: Kings.

Coaching. John Stevens hasn't coached in the postseason since the 2008-09 campaign with thePhiladelphia Flyers, but he did have the helm for a 17-game run the previous season. Gerard Gallant was in the playoffs just once, with the Panthersin 2015-16 for six games. The Golden Knights coach gets the nod here, if only because nine out of 10 buttons he has pressed this season have worked. Advantage: Golden Knights.

Health. Vegas has had a few injury bumps in the past few weeks, but defenseman Luca Sbisa is the only question mark for the first round. The Kings, meanwhile, are concerned about the health of defensemen Muzzin (upper-body injury) and Derek Forbort (lower-body injury), with the latter looking like he might miss the first round. Depth forward Torrey Mitchell also recently missed time. Advantage: Golden Knights.

Series pick: Vegas in five.