Golden Knights’ Lack of Regular-Season Emphasis Was Costly

Now that the dust has settled on the Vegas Golden Knights’ highly-disappointing first-round exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it’s clear the club’s title defense campaign went wayside long before they locked horns with the Dallas Stars.
Golden Knights’ Lack of Regular-Season Emphasis Was Costly

As you would expect from an organization with serious Cup aspirations, the Golden Knights did everything they could to knock off the top-seeded Stars. They looked poised for an upset out of the gate, taking both opening road games at American Airlines Center to head back to T-Mobile Arena with a 2-0 lead. They, however, then surrendered both home games en route to a collapse that culminated in a 2-1 Dallas victory in Game 7.

Sure, you can point to questions in net or the lack of production from guys like Tomas Hertl , William Karlsson, and Chandler Stephenson. Ultimately, though, Vegas positioned themselves as the effective No. 8 seeds in the West, setting up a challenging path that could have been avoided.

Golden Knights Took Regular Season For Granted

In hindsight, it’s pretty hard to believe the Golden Knights would wind up hanging on to the second wild-card spot — just six points clear of the St. Louis Blues — given how the season started. Still firmly in the honeymoon phase in the aftermath of their 2023 Cup win, they opened the season by snatching 23 of a possible 24 points over their first 12 games and setting an NHL record for the best start ever by a defending champion.

Perhaps that seemingly-invincible start was part of the problem. The other 60 games of the campaign produced a 34-29-7 record, a tepid mark featuring more losses than wins. Even as in-season headlines focused on the club’s injury updates and trade deadline overhaul, Vegas’ foray through the regular season was deemphasized with a postseason berth seeming inevitable. While they handled themselves well in head-to-head showdowns with fellow Cup contenders (they went 13-5-1 against the top six teams in the Western Conference), they played down to lesser rivals like the Anaheim Ducks, Calgary Flames, and Arizona Coyotes (3-7-1 combined).

Key Losses Down the Stretch

Even with lots to play for in the season’s waning days, the Golden Knights demonstrated the same maddening inconsistency they were plagued by throughout the entire campaign. After reeling off six wins in seven games to seemingly retake control of the No. 3 spot in the Pacific Division, the club surrendered 16 goals over an 0-3 road trip through Arizona, Vancouver, and Edmonton, falling back behind the Los Angeles Kings.

No loss was more costly than the Golden Knights’ season finale. At home to the Ducks, losers of 50 regulation games on the season, Vegas was in control of its own destiny and looking to lock up a first round clash with the Edmonton Oilers. However, a Frank Vatrano hat trick proved to be their undoing in a shocking 4-1 loss. Coupled with the Kings’ 5-4 overtime win over the Chicago Blackhawks, the loss assured the Golden Knights of what may well have been the least-desirable opponent in the West.

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Organizational Focus on Postseason

Injuries were, once again, a big part of the Golden Knights’ season, to no fault of the players, coaching staff or anyone involved with the organization. In fact, it’s a credit to the club that they were able to ice a mostly full, healthy roster come playoff time (of course, Mark Stone’s availability is a whole other subject matter). But dealing with injuries and managing the overall health of an aging, veteran group came at a cost.

It goes without saying that injuries are a part of the game. But on top of missing players like Stone, Jack Eichel, Alex Pietrangelo, and Shea Theodore for extended periods, the threat of injury led to minute reductions for some notable contributors. When Pietrangelo wasn’t missing altogether, he was averaging just 23:34 of ice time, his lowest average since 2010-11. Ditto for Brayden McNabb and Alec Martinez, two other veteran blue liners who saw a significant drop in minutes.

For a team as deep as the Golden Knights, leaning on that depth to ease some of the regular-season burden on veteran legs makes a lot of sense. In light of their first-round defeat at the hands of a tough Dallas squad, however, it’s fair to wonder if they would have been in a different position with some added availability from their best players.

Head coach Bruce Cassidy and his coaching staff coached to win every night, but also managed this season with another goal in mind: to be at full strength and ability once the playoffs rolled around. In a sense, they were successful. The Golden Knights were healthy and clearly ready for playoff hockey. What they ultimately found out, though, is that not all playoff spots are created equal. Vegas may have enjoyed an easier path through the opening round against an easier opponent or with home-ice advantage, but trying to win Game 7 on the road against the Western-champion Stars proved to be too big a hill to climb.

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