Last Tuesday night at T-Mobile Arena was a night to remember. Not just for Golden Knights fans (or Lightning fans, sadly), but for hockey fans across North America. For the middle of December, this was the closest we’ve gotten to playoff hockey in Nevada.
But it wasn’t just that Vegas beat the Tampa Bay Lightning by a score of 4-3. It was how it happened.
After the first period, the Lightning held a 2-0 lead thanks to two power play goals. The two teams had played a relatively even period at even strength, with Tampa holding a 12-10 advantage in shots after 20 minutes.
The second period was all Vegas, as they outshot Tampa by an 18-10 margin, and scored two power play goals of their own. James Neal scored his team-leading 17th of the year, while Jonathan Marchessault chimed in with his 12th.
In the third, the shots heavily favored the Lightning, but Vegas ended up grabbing the lead just over halfway through the frame. Erik Haula tipped in a Shea Theodore point shot for the Golden Knights’ third power play marker of the night.
The Lightning responded, however, as Victor Hedman’s floater fooled Marc-Andre Fleury and knotted the score at three. Deryk Engelland took a rare “throwing the stick” penalty under a minute later, and it looked like Tampa was about to regain the lead, but the Golden Knights killed it off.
And then, with under a minute left, magic happened.
The Golden Knights headed to the power play with 24 seconds left. The puck settled in the corner to the right of Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, and it looked as though the game was headed for overtime.
With roughly five seconds left, the puck came loose to Erik Haula. He quickly sent it to Marchessault, who slid it across to Theodore, playing the right point. Theodore wound up and let a shot loose. As the puck crossed the line, and the crowd of 17,813 went into a frenzy, I was convinced.
The Vegas Golden Knights are must-watch hockey every time they take the ice.
After the Expansion Draft
The Expansion Draft took place, and we now knew who would be joining the Golden Knights.
To be completely honest, I was fairly skeptical after the expansion draft. While a good deal of George McPhee’s picks made sense, there were others that came across as confusing. Instead of going with the proven Riley Sheahan, McPhee went with Tomas Nosek out of Detroit. He chose controversial defenseman Alexei Emelin over promising young players like Charles Hudon and Nikita Nesterov.
Then came the trades, the area where I really thought McPhee had slipped up. Instead of drafting potential top-four blueliner Trevor van Riemsdyk, he accepted a deal in which he gained a fifth-round pick for drafting Connor Brickley. He also took on the contracts of Mikhail Grabovski and David Clarkson in trades, two of the largest albatross contracts in the NHL today.
When you looked down the roster, it wasn’t overly exciting. Aside from Fleury, Neal and David Perron, the team was mostly made up of younger players yet to prove themselves with their former teams. They did have a few exciting young players, as McPhee acquired Theodore and Alex Tuch via trade. Vegas also had three of the top-15 draft picks in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, allowing them to stock the cupboards full of prospects.
Regardless of that, it seemed as though the 2017-18 season would be a rough one.
The First Vegas Homestand
After winning the first two games of the season on the road, the Golden Knights made their home debut at T-Mobile Arena. The first game was exactly what you would expect: a performance, a spectacle of sorts. They honored the victims of the tragic shooting that took place in the city on Oct. 1 with a powerful pre-game tribute.
Then, at 7:45 p.m. local time, the puck was dropped and the game was underway.
What happened between Oct. 10 and Oct. 27 caught the attention of the entire hockey world, regardless of their allegiance. The Golden Knights went 6-1-0 over that seven-game stretch, with the only loss coming against the Detroit Red Wings. Statistically, they were one of the best teams in the league in a number of categories. Their penalty kill and face-off metrics were both very high.
A highlight of the homestand came in Game 5, when the Golden Knights hosted the St. Louis Blues. The Blues were leading the Western Conference at the time, and provided Vegas with their first legitimate test. Malcolm Subban, subbing for the injured Marc-Andre Fleury (we’ll get to that), stood on his head for the first 50 minutes. He had stopped 37 of 38 shots, and helped the Golden Knights cling to a 2-1 lead.
Then, with 9:10 remaining in the final frame, Subban got hurt. That meant Oscar Dansk, a second-round pick by the Blue Jackets in 2012, would be making his NHL debut. The first shot that Dansk faces just happens to be an Alex Pietrangelo one-timer from the top of the circles.
Needless to say, the game was tied at two.
Then, more magic happened. Dansk went on to save the next 10 shots, including one point-blank chance from Jaden Schwartz in overtime. With under a minute left in the extra period, William Karlsson roofed a 2-on-1 feed from Reilly Smith, sending T-Mobile Arena into yet another frenzy.
Vegas was rolling, and the hockey world was hooked. Then, the injury bug hit. Hard.
The Knights’ Injuries
First, it was Marc-Andre Fleury.
Next, it was Malcolm Subban.
Vegas headed out on the road with their top two goalies on the shelf. Then, one and a half periods into said road trip, Oscar Dansk went down. That meant Maxime Lagace, an undrafted goalie out of Quebec, was next in line.
Ten games in, and the Golden Knights were on goalie No. 4. After the surreality of the first homestand, it was a harsh dose of reality for the expansion franchise.
Naturally, Vegas began to stumble, losing five out of their next six. As promising as their start had been, it looked like the injuries were going to be too much for this team to handle. Even Lagace eventually got hurt, as he left the Nov. 14 contest against the Oilers with an injury. That forced Dylan Ferguson, drafted in the seventh-round of this season’s draft, into his first NHL action.
Naturally, fans across North America felt pity for the team. They’d come out as the “little engine that could” to begin the year, but it looked as though the hot start may be for naught.
Then, as Lagace and Subban both returned to the line-up, the Golden Knights did the seemingly unthinkable. They climbed out of the slump, and got hot again.
The Golden December Streak
Friday, Dec. 1.
That, as of the afternoon of Dec. 23, is the last time that the Golden Knights lost in regulation. Since that night’s loss, at the hands of the Winnipeg Jets, the team has gone 7-0-1. That’s good for 15 points, tied for third-highest in the NHL. Only the Capitals, Lightning and Bruins have been as good or better in that stretch.
They continue to climb the standings, and currently sit tied for second in the Western Conference. They’ve beaten both teams that played in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, and, most recently, the best team in the NHL. They’ve scored the fifth-most goals in the NHL this season (114), and are third in goals-for per game (3.45). The Golden Knights have shown that they can win defensive battles, but also win a high-scoring shootout. As Kyle Gipe pointed out, there’s a number of reasons why this team is playing at such a high level already.
The only question that remains for hockey fans, though, it what’s next?
What’s (Realistically) Next
Realistically, there has to be a let-down at some point. Aside from the goaltending, the rest of the team has been remarkably healthy, and a number of their players are scoring at career-high paces through the first third of the season.
William Karlsson’s 27 points are already a career-high, as he had just 25 in 81 games last season. Jonathan Marchessault, the team’s leading scorer has 31 points in 30 games after scoring 51 a year ago. James Neal and David Perron are both shooting over their career shooting percentages, which are likely to level off as the season moves forward.
The Golden Knights have also been very average on the road (8-7-1 versus 14-2-1 at home), and two lengthy road trips (four and seven games, respectively) coming up over the next month and a half. In order to stay at this pace, they’ll have to learn to win away from T-Mobile Arena.
That being said, they’re still on pace for 54 wins and 114 points as pointed out by USA Today. Even if they play .500 hockey the rest of the way, they’d still find themselves in the mid-90s in terms of points. Considering how mediocre their division has been thus far, that would likely still earn the team a playoff spot.
Every game at T-Mobile Arena is an event. The team has the perfect mix of youth and experience, and a coach that knows how to put it all together in Gerard Gallant. They’re fast, they score in bunches, and they’re a team that more fans should be watching.