T-Mobile Arena is hopping with postseason hockey action these days – and not just the Vegas Golden Knights’ playoff push, either. With most American Hockey League teams done for the season, the Henderson Silver Knights continue to play on, set to begin a three-game series to determine the Pacific Division champion against the Bakersfield Condors on Wednesday night at the affiliate Golden Knights’ home arena.
Back in April, the league made the decision to cancel the traditional Calder Cup Playoffs due to COVID-19 protocols, but left the fate of each divisional championship up to its respective divisions. The Pacific was the only group that opted to forge ahead, meaning that the John D. Chick Trophy would still be awarded to the division champion.
Silver Knights Making Their Own Inaugural Run
Back in January, I predicted that Henderson would follow their parent club in reaching the playoffs in their expansion year and, well, I guess I was right (you can ignore some of those other predictions, mind you). While no one could’ve foreseen the strange circumstances of their playoff run, the Silver Knights nevertheless topped the division with a 25-13-0-1 mark to earn the No. 1 seed.
By finishing first, Henderson received an automatic berth in the semifinals, where they made short work of the San Jose Barracuda with a 2-0 series sweep. Jack Dugan, a Golden Knights’ 2017 fifth-round draft pick, potted a hat trick in a 4-1 Game 1 victory, while regular-season top scorer Danny O’Regan notched two goals to lead the club to a 4-2 Game 2 triumph.
Some Kind of Reward
It might not feel like a playoff run, but the Silver Knights have a chance to create some AHL history, which is more than can be said of most of their league cohorts. They are now set to face the Condors, the Edmonton Oilers’ affiliate led by high-scoring wingers Cooper Marody and Tyler Benson. While it’s not quite the Calder Cup, a division crown in Year 1 is certainly still something to fight for and would be a mark of pride for Manny Vivieros’ coaching staff.
Whether they take care of business against Bakersfield or not, Henderson deserves some finality to the 2020-21 season. No, they’re certainly not the only ones, but they are the only expansion group who were largely just getting to know one another as the season began. Then, the coaching staff had to step behind the Golden Knights’ bench as emergency substitutes when Vegas’ coaches were added to the COVID-19 list.
As with so many other AHL organizations, the constant roster adjustments tied to the COVID-19 protocol issues that plagued their NHL parent clubs and the taxi squad added a whole other level of chaos. With apologies to the denizens of the other four divisions, it’s nice to finish out a challenging, unpredictable season with a clear goal in mind and something to ultimately play for.
Why Fans Should Care
When the Pacific Division Final kicks off at the ‘Fortress’ on Wednesday, some Silver Knights players could well be getting a taste of their future home. Henderson’s position as one of just two AHL clubs still in action comes as a result of a season’s worth of hard work under trying circumstances. Now is the chance for some of these players to prove themselves worthy of an NHL shot.
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In net, Logan Thompson seized the top job and gave the organization a goaltending prospect they may not have known they had. The 24-year-old All-Rookie team member led all netminders with a .943 save percentage and ranked second with a 1.96 goals-against average. In the two-game semifinal against San Jose, Thompson stopped 52 of 55 shots.
If Thompson is ultimately NHL-bound (hey, maybe Vegas finds a new home for Marc-Andre Fleury or Robin Lehner this off-season), he could be eventually joined by some Henderson teammates. Dugan looks like a future NHLer (33 points in 37 games), 21-year-old Lucas Elvenes (24 points in 37 games) continued to develop in his second pro season and 19-year-old Pavel Dorofeyev acquitted himself well (nine goals in 24 games) after coming over from Russia.
With an eye to the past on what they’ve earned to this point and an eye to the future on the importance of big-game experience for the development of young players, there’s plenty of meaning to be found for the Silver Knights in the upcoming Pacific Division Final.
I may be a Leafs fan at heart (I’ve witnessed their highs and lows first-hand as a Scotiabank Arena employee), but I’m also a veteran freelance sportswriter who loves a good story. And there’s been no better story in hockey over the past few years than the Vegas Golden Knights. I’m excited to be covering the NHL again on the Golden Knights’ beat.