After a magical debut season that defied expectation, set records, and shattered conventional wisdom about what an expansion franchise is capable of, the Vegas Golden Knights are in the midst of the hardest act in show business: their follow-up.
The Christmas break comes a little over one-third of the way through the Golden Knights' sophomore NHL season. The team plays three games at home in the five days leading up to the holiday, on December 20, 22, and 23. Their homestand concludes on December 27 against the dangerous Colorado Avalanche.
The Golden Knights have played 36 of 82 regular-season games at the time of writing and have an 19-15-2 record. The team's 40 points puts them fourth in the Pacific Division, seventh in the Western Conference, 12th in the NHL, and in a wild-card playoff spot. It's a middling position, yes, but it's far from a total disaster and not the collapse many expected.
The "Golden Misfits," as they were called last season, boasted a somewhat Frankstein-esque forward corps of expiring contracts. As a result, they lost James Neal and David Perron, but traded for longtime Montreall Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty.
Up front the Golden Knights are missing Finnish forward Erik Haula, on injured reserve after putting up a career-high 55 points last season. Haula still has two years remaining on his contract with Vegas; he was 15 games into the season before being sidelined with a knee injury that recently required surgery and may very well have ended his season.
Even without Haula, the team's scoring is down. The regression is both natural and expected, but it's taking a toll nonetheless. William Karlsson, last year's top scorer, is on pace for a 50-point season, down from his career high of 78 in 2017-2018. Karlsson's time with the Columbus Blue Jackets showed that a repeat of his 43 goals and 35 assists is highly unlikely, but Karlsson is still producing and sees time on the top line with Jonathan Marchessault and Riley Smith.
The Golden Knights played the first 20 games of the season without defender Nate Schmidt, who was suspended for violating the NHL's performance-enhancing drug use policy. Missing Schmidt exposed a thin blue line that the Knights are undoubtedly looking to bolster, either at the trade deadline in February or in free agency next summer.
Since his return, locker room favorite Schmidt has seen time on the second penalty kill unit and is averaging around 18 minutes of ice time per game.
One of last year's biggest stories for the Golden Knights was their goaltending depth in the face of an all-but-unheard-of injury stretch. Starting netminder Marc-Andre Fleury has been healthy so far this season; he's struggled at times but he's seeing the majority of starts and is an integral part of this team. That said, the Golden Knights will need more than a .907 save percentage from the three-time Stanley Cup champion if they hope to make a deep run in the playoffs this spring.
While this may not be the same exciting upstart team that rocked the NHL last season, the Vegas Golden Knights are still providing great entertainment and one of the league's hottest atmospheres at T-Mobile Arena. Hockey is alive in the desert, and here to stay.