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Knights deserve spot in Stanley Cup Final

The Vegas Golden Knights, winners of 51 games during the regular season, their first in existence, shocked everyone and made it to the Stanley Cup Final.

The Vegas Golden Knights, winners of 51 games during the regular season, their first in existence, shocked everyone and made it to the Stanley Cup Final.

To call them a long shot at the start of the season is kind. Prior to their arrival, the high-water mark for wins by an expansion team was 33 by the 1993-94 Florida Panthers. Las Vegas oddsmakers put the Golden Knights' chances at winning the Stanley Cup at 20-to-1 back in October. Yet to say this team is a fluke or was somehow gifted this Cinderella run is inaccurate.

One of the best indicators of a team's talent level is goal differential. The more a team outscores its opponents, the stronger that team is, and the Golden Knights' path through the playoffs was anything but easy.

Vegas had to first get through the Los Angeles Kings, who finished the regular season with a plus-31 goal differential, the seventh-best in the NHL. That proved to be easier than imagined: Vegas swept Los Angeles with shutouts in two of those victories. Then the Golden Knights had to contend with the San Jose Sharks, the eighth-best team in terms of goal differential (plus-25). After that it was a Winnipeg Jets squad that outscored opponents 277-218 (plus-59, second-best) during then regular season. And at the end of it all, the Golden Knights are still standing, having defeated those three opponents by a combined score of 43-27, giving them the second-best goal differential in the playoffs after their upcoming opponent, the Washington Capitals. If you normalize that goal differential to 60 minutes it becomes the highest this postseason.

And let's not forget the individual performances, many by players left exposed by their former teams in the expansion draft.

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William Karlsson had 18 goals in 183 games and never more than nine in a season before joining the Golden Knights as part of a package from the Columbus Blue Jackets. He rewarded his new team with 43 goals during the regular season, the third-most in the NHL behind Washington's Alex Ovechkin and Patrick Laine. In the playoffs, Karlsson has 13 points (six goals, seven assists). Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, castoffs from the Florida Panthers, were proven performers and continued that throughout the playoffs. Marchessault leads the team with 18 points (eight goals, 10 assists) in 15 playoff games and Smith has 16 points. As a top-line trio for Vegas, Karlsson, Marchessault and Smith potted a team-high 10 postseason even-strength goals while allowing only four, the best on-ice performance by any line combo in the playoffs.

Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, acquired from Pittsburgh, leads the league with a .947 postseason save percentage this year, a career high, with four shutouts. And he's stopped 187 of the 199 high-danger chances he has faced, those attempts in the slot and the crease, at even strength.

Even fourth-liner Ryan Reaves, also acquired from the Penguins by general manager George McPhee, has been clutch for Vegas coach Gerard Gallant. At even strength, Reaves and his linemates have outscored opponents by a 2-to-1 margin, one of those goals a game-winner by Reaves himself, with a 23-14 edge in scoring chances. Almost half of those chances (11) have come in high-danger areas, giving Vegas quality looks from a unsuspecting source.

"Everybody on this team has something to prove," Reaves told Jeff Gordon of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "We call ourselves 'The Golden Misfits' for a reason. We're doing a good job of proving everybody wrong."

Now that the Vegas bookmakers have the Golden Knights as the Stanley Cup favorites there aren't many doubters left, but this franchise deserves every bit of success it has achieved up to this point, because it's never easy making it to the Stanley Cup Finals, and tougher still in a team's first year of existence.

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