Vegas Golden Knights’ Road to the Western Conference Final


Angel Rocha

Following months of uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman unveiled a new 24 team playoff format on May 26, 2020, marking an end to the 2019-2020 NHL season.

To start the playoffs, the top four teams of each conference based on win percentage were entered into a round-robin tournament. The advancing teams were the: Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers, Washington Capitals, Dallas Stars, Saint Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, and your Vegas Golden Knights. The Knights went undefeated in the tournament, awarding them top seed in the Western Conference. The remaining eight teams from each conference were organized into a play-in series to determine the bottom four seeds.

The Golden Knights first-round series followed an incredible upset by the 12th seeded Chicago Blackhawks against the hometown 5th seeded Edmonton Oilers. Vegas head coach Peter Deboer made a controversial decision to start the recently acquired ex-Blackhawk goalkeeper Robin Lehner over the franchise keeper Marc-Andre Fleury. Despite the Knights taking a comfortable 3-0 series lead, Chicago never gave up and avoided the sweep with a 3-1 victory in Game 4. In a nail-biting Game 5, the Golden Knights topped the resilient Blackhawks, 5-4, securing their spot into the second round. Vegas would rest for a few days until their new opponent, the Vancouver Canucks, defeated the defending Stanley Cup Champions St Louis Blues in six games.

The name of the game in the second round was speed. Both the Knights and Canucks focused their game around quick attacks and man advantages. Lehner’s solid goaltending kept Fleury on the bench, and just before Game 1, controversy arose. Fleury’s agent posted a picture of Fleury being stabbed through the chest with a sword labeled “Deboer”, the Vegas coach. Despite the public tension, Lehner started and had two shutouts in Game 1 and Game 3, giving the Knights a 2-1 lead. Deboer then surprisingly started Fleury in Game 4 and he earned the Knights a 5-3 win. The Golden Knights now had a stranglehold 3-1 series lead on the Canucks.

However, everything changed in Game 5. 

The Canucks swapped their goaltender for backup Thatcher Demko. While Game 5 had 43 shots by the VGK team and 19 by the Canucks, Demko registered an impressive forty-two saves, pushing the Canucks to a 2-1 victory. In the next game, Demko maintained his performance, registering his first post-season shutout and contributing to the Canucks 4-0 win. Demko was playing like a veteran goaltender, and not a single Knight could force the puck across the goal line. For many, including myself, flashbacks of the Game 7 tragedy from last year’s playoff series against the San Jose Sharks returned. Would the Golden Knights have to handle the embarrassment of choking a 3-1 series lead in back-to-back playoffs?

Game 7 had a very simple plan. Score. At any cost. The Cannucks struggled to cross the neutral zone and force scoring chances. The Knights now only had to focus on Demko. If Demko wasn’t making an incredible goal-line save, luck was on his side and the post would deny the Knights their first goal in over seven periods. After two scoreless periods, Shea Theodore launched a rocket into the top corner of Demko’s goal and finally registered Vegas’ first goal late into the third and final period. Demko’s ridiculous 98-consecutive save streak was over. As the clock winded down, Demko was pulled out, giving the Knights two empty-net goals. The Knights had redeemed their Game 7 reputation with a 3-0 win and punched their ticket to the Western Conference Final. The Dallas Stars faced a similar situation against the Colorado Avalanche, but they too stopped the 3-1 comeback and set up the next matchup. 

Game 1 of the Western Conference Final saw the Knights struggle to create chances. Vegas seemed fatigued and imprecise, possibly because it was their third game in four nights. Fleury returned to the goal and gave a solid performance; he single-handedly kept the Knights in the game. In the final period, the Knights seemed to finally find their groove, but it was too late; they fell 1-0 to the Dallas Stars. Hopefully, the Knights find their rhythm with the return of their physical presence in Ryan Reeves. Catch your Golden Knights in Game 2 on Tuesday 9/8!