Well, here we are.
Vegas is in the Cup Final and the result is so antithetical to any reasonable expectation of their ceiling that people are well and truly scrambling to come up with reasons why. Not that this hasn’t been the case more or less since Oct. 1, of course, because their regular-season results certainly highlighted a disconnect from the jump. But now, just four wins away from immortality, people are beyond baffled.
The post-facto explanations for why Vegas had 109 points in the regular season and then mowed through the first three rounds of the playoffs in just 15 games have all necessarily veered into the “intangibles” territory because there is no tangible way to explain their success. Hindsight being what it is, coupled the general drive among hockey’s commentary class (call them the unintelligencia) to accept as irrefutable mystical thinking over any whatever rationality people can actually offer, comes the idea that Vegas has more or less done what was previously proven impossible: Figured Out Shot Quality.
Unlike the Avalanche, Leafs, Flames, Panthers, Wild, Blue Jackets, Stars who were brushed aside by regression when the puck stopped bouncing their way, the only way to explain Vegas’s continued flouting of probability can only have a deeper meaning that expected goals or other metrics that are proven to be good indicators of long-term success suggest.
What’s interesting is that all this talk revolves around a team based in Vegas, where “luck” is a currency but everyone understands inherently that every good bounce of the roulette wheel, perfect flop at the poker table, or jackpot pull of the slot machine isn’t luck at all. It is, instead, understood to be a function of pure mathematical probability.
Hockey people nonetheless reject the idea that you could have six hot hours at the craps table outright. It must be Something They’re Doing Differently from most other people who have ever picked up a pair of dice.
Let’s get something out of the way first and foremost and say that the reason Vegas, winners of nine one-goal games in these playoffs, is in the Cup Final is down to two factors: Marc-Andre Fleury (by far the biggest reason) and its phenomenal first line.
Smith-Karlsson-Marchessault has been incredible in every facet of the game, for sure and absolutely. The extent to which they are dominating opponents almost can’t be overstated. They’re getting a lot of attention and deserve all of it.
However, the number of goals Fleury has saved above any reasonable expectation for performance is incredible; if he were “merely” a .920 goaltender in these playoffs (and .920 is a phenomenal number, usually good enough to get you into the Vezina conversation if your team is any good) he would have given up an extra 14 goals in these 15 games. Again, Vegas has won nine of its 12 games by a single goal or an empty-netter, so even if Fleury were merely “above-average” the precarity of Vegas’s success would increase significantly, and would have likely run out a while ago.
This isn’t to say that Fleury hasn’t been deserving of all the success he’s brought to Vegas. Far from it. If you stop the pucks you deserve the accolades. The argument isn’t that he’s been lucky (he absolutely has, that’s irrefutable) but rather that this is a run of success literally unprecedented in his career. Since he came back from injury on Dec. 12, he’s a .932 goalie in 56 appearances across the regular season and playoffs. There has never ever been a 56-game run in Fleury’s previous 806 career games in which he was .932.
So the question is: To what do we attribute it? Could the “change of scenery” — with the new goalie coach, new expectations, new system, new teammates, etc. — have an impact? Sure. It almost certainly changed his approach to the game. But could it have so significant an impact that he turned into a much better goaltender than his previous 800 games at the NHL level would indicate? If you think he took a big step forward at age 33, well, I’m honestly not sure what to tell you.
Tim Thomas, of course, had a late-career renaissance at around the same period of his life; from ages 33 to 37, he was a .926 goaltender. He cleared .910 in only one other season before or after. Could Fleury have somehow bottled the same Ponce de Leon elixir? I mean, I guess so, but isn’t the far more likely explanation that this is just 60-ish games of outsized success? I had a Vegas fan yesterday telling me goalies don’t simply “get hot” for 60 games, but here’s the thing: It happens literally every season. Just not to this extent.
As to the broader success of the team both in the regular- and postseasons, one of the big lines parroted by the attendant media class over the weekend is that Vegas has been good because of their “resilience.” Gerard Gallant said it himself and everyone was happy to scribble it into their notebooks.
Vegas head coach Gerard Gallant in pre-game media session, asked him what was the one element about his team that most influenced this run: Resilience was this answer. When his team has a tough stretch in a game they bend but most often don't break.
— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) May 20, 2018
The “bend but don’t break” thing is interesting because a lot of it, ultimately, boils down to Gallant’s job in the first place. The Golden Knights don’t have a lot of talent on the roster, and that’s something everyone understands. So when the third and fourth lines get hemmed in their own zone, what does “don’t break” present as? The answer, obviously, is “not giving up goals.” But doesn’t having a .932 goalie behind you for the last 70 of those games make “not-breaking” easier to achieve?
More to the point, when you have an elite top line, as Gallant does, being able to put them over the boards any time you need a good shift really, really helps. They take the hardest matchups and push the puck in the right direction. When any combination of them were on the ice this season, they took almost 53 percent of the shot attempts at 5-on-5. When they were off, their teammates only mustered 51 percent. The gap is even bigger (almost 54 percent versus a little more than 48 percent) in the postseason, when they’ve played, y’know, playoff teams. That’s the kind of difference those players can make. Gallant knows that and uses them wisely, much to his credit.
Don’t get me wrong. The kind of esprit de corps being The Golden Misfits engenders is probably there, but it is to some extent anecdotal. The fact that the guy the Kings gave away in the expansion draft scored the clinching goal against the Kings in the first round was a funny coincidence, and it looks like less of a coincidence that the guy the Sharks gave away eliminated the Sharks. And when a Winnipeg native who hadn’t scored the entire season bounced the Jets in Winnipeg? Now people are thinking, “Well this couldn’t possibly be a coincidence.” But it is. It’s a fun storyline to which people want to attribute greater meaning, and won’t accept “random chance” as a feasible explanation.
The question is — or at least should be — to what extent the “no one wanted us!!!” attitude manifests as, in terms of wins and losses. Can you possibly keep up that level of extreme eff-you motivation over what is now a 97-game season? It’s difficult to imagine.
This all goes back to Conventional Hockey Wisdom, which most “smart” reporters are happy to dismiss out of hand when they have a better explanation at hand without too much additional research. Because on the other side of the equation, all these shooters running up against Marc-Andre Fleury transforming into the best goaltender in the world over the past five months are facing the prospect of seemingly going cold, right?
This is something I’ve always wondered about in hockey because while I of course understand that a cold scoring streak can get into a guy’s head, at what point does a guy start “gripping his stick too tight?” For just about any NHL, let alone a highly skilled one, if you don’t score on 15 straight shots, you’ve probably been somewhat unlucky. The Jets only scored 10 goals on 161 shots in the Western Conference Final, and Blake Wheeler, just to choose a star player, didn’t score on any of his 16 shots. Nik Ehlers and Bryan Little (both 0 for 10) were in a similar boat.
Did they start the series gripping their sticks too tight? Probably not, they’d just duked it out in a fairly high-scoring series with Nashville. So when did the problem begin? Game 3? Game 4? Or can we just accept that even really good players sometimes take 16 shots and don’t score on any of them?
People have said to me that I will be at the Vegas Stanley Cup parade with a sign saying “Regression,” because something is going on here that I, in my will to dismiss their success as purely luck-based, could never hope to understand. Hockey, after all, is a “dynamic sport.”
But in terms of pure difference between expected and actual goals, since Fleury came back from his concussion, Vegas scored close to 56 percent of the goals and “should have” only scored about 50 percent, according to expected-goals. If they’ve Figured Out Shot Quality, then good for them I guess, but again, the more likely explanation is: No they haven’t.
At this point we’re so close to the end game that it doesn’t really matter. The grim spectre of regression isn’t likely to scythe all this success away in the Cup Final, so I am honestly picking Vegas to win the Cup regardless of who comes out of the East, and rooting for them.
Because you should always root for the funniest possible outcome in sports, and what would be funnier than this?
That’s right folks, I’m not mad. I’m actually laughing.
All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.