The kneejerk reaction of clueless sports media types is that the Vegas Golden Knights are in the midst of a ‘disappointing season’ after their unprecedented success last year. That’s really not the case. Vegas didn’t exactly come flying out of the gate but they’ve since found their footing and currently stand at 5th place in the Western Conference. Worth noting that the team that beat them in the Stanley Cup Finals–the Washington Capitals–are also in 5th place in the East. There are few things more difficult than competing for a Stanley Cup, win or lose. For Vegas to be where they are demonstrates the quality of their organization. They certainly have nothing to be ashamed of with their performance this season.
That being said, they’re not in exceptional form at the moment having lost 7 of their last 10 games (3-7-0). Last season they were dominant on their home ice at T-Mobile Arena but this year not so much. They’ve now lost five straight games on home ice and it won’t get any easier on Saturday as the Nashville Predators come to town. What’s happening here is pretty obvious–teams that overlooked the ‘expansion team’ last year are completely focused this year. Games that were last year a distraction from a fun trip to Las Vegas are now ‘circled’ on the schedule. Quality teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs–who beat them in their previous outing–know that they’re facing a real hockey team and approach them accordingly. Lower tier teams like the Arizona Coyotes consider a matchup in Vegas against the Knights a ‘big game’.
None of this is unhealthy or an indictment of the Vegas hockey team. To the contrary, this is the basic dynamic that any good team faces on their home ice. The real story here is that in the span of one season Vegas has gone from an ‘expansion team’ to just another solid Western Conference team. That might be a bigger accomplishment than making the Stanley Cup Finals in their debut season. A finals run could be attributed to a number of factors including ‘getting hot’ at the right time. Transforming the team from ‘new kid on the block’ to a solid NHL franchise in record time is a testament to the Knights and the quality people they have running the show in the 702.
Nashville is essentially doing what they do every season. The Predators aren’t a flashy team but whenever you look at the standings you see that they’ve taken points in 7 of their last 10 games–like now when they’re entering on a 6-3-1 run. Some of the recent vintage Preds teams have been monstrous at Bridgestone Arena but played poorly on the road. Not this year, as Nashville is 15-10-4 away from home. Aside from their inexplicable struggle on the power play (#31 in the league) everything is humming right along. They may fall short of last year’s 53 wins but they’d gladly trade that President’s Trophy for a nice Stanley Cup run. The Western Conference is deep and dangerous this year but the Preds are well positioned to be a player. As he seem to do every year, GM David Poile added some nice depth to the team late parlaying a couple of draft picks into Brian Boyle and Cody McLeod.
Just can’t pass up Nashville as a small underdog against the Golden Knights at T-Mobile. Preds have now won three straight against last year’s Western Conference champion including both meetings this year. Nashville is in a crucial scheduling stretch–they have a big rematch game on February 26 against red hot St. Louis but between this game and that one they’ve got a lot of ‘winnable’ games. Nashville will face Vegas tonight, play at Dallas on Tuesday and then three home games against lower table teams Los Angeles, Colorado and Edmonton. Dallas is the only playoff qualified team of the bunch and they’ve got a tenuous grasp on 8th place. Nashville could run the table over the next couple of weeks and without a looming ‘circled’ game should be plenty focused here.