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Why the Golden Knights are one of the best teams in the NHL

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  • The upstart Vegas Golden Knights are providing thrills in their inaugural NHL season.

      The upstart Vegas Golden Knights are providing thrills in their inaugural NHL season.
    ILLUSTRATION BY PATRICK KUNZER | Staff Photographer

 
 

Nobody predicted it.

Not NHL.com. Not the Hockey News. Not the Sporting News. Not ESPN.com.

Nobody.

But here we are almost halfway through the NHL season and the expansion Vegas Golden Knights are sitting atop the Pacific Division with a ridiculous, impossible-to-believe 27-10-2 record.

Their coach was thrown to the curb -- almost literally -- by the Florida Panthers just over a year ago. Their players came from all over the league. They were castoffs. Third-liners. Fourth-liners. Misfits.

Yet somehow they are 17-2-1 at home. They're the league's second-highest scoring team, and they'll likely make the Stanley Cup playoffs.

And they'll be in Chicago on Friday to take on the last-place Chicago Blackhawks.

"I'm not going to sit here and say I thought we'd be in first place. Nobody would have believed me," coach Gerard Gallant said in a phone interview Wednesday. "I really didn't have expectations.

"I knew we had some good players from the expansion draft. I knew we had good goaltending. And we had a lot of depth and guys who compete and work hard. It's all come together obviously and that's why we're winning."

They sure are, and at a historic clip. Vegas is 12-1-1 in its past 14 games, which is 2 more wins than expansion Ottawa managed all season in 1992-93.

Why does everything seem to be coming up aces for Vegas? Let's take a look:

Left winger James Neal, shown here giving support to goalie Max Lagace after a game in November, is one of the most well-known members of the Vegas Golden Knights.
Left winger James Neal, shown here giving support to goalie Max Lagace after a game in November, is one of the most well-known members of the Vegas Golden Knights. - Associated Press
The right mix

Only die-hard hockey fans can probably name more than three Golden Knights. By far the biggest names are former Predators forward James Neal, journeyman forward David Perron and three-time Stanley Cup winning goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.

After that, there's Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, who scored 30 and 15 goals, respectively, for the off-the-radar Panthers last season. William Karlsson was an everyday player in Columbus for two seasons but managed just 15 goals. Erik Haula was a grinder in Minnesota. Cody Eakin disappeared last season in Dallas.

And then there's a group of defensemen with experience but zero name recognition.

It's a blue-collar group that does all the dirty work to get the job done. Hit hard. Work hard. Defend hard. Play hard.

It's contagious, infectious and easy to buy into.

Said Gallant, who realized this team was no fluke about a month into the season: "People started talking around the league, 'That's a pretty good hockey team. They work hard and they compete hard. And that's why they're having success.' "

They're also having success because players such as Haula (15 goals) and Karlsson (20 goals) are making the most of their additional ice time. And because everyone -- forwards and D-men -- make it difficult for opponents to generate high-quality chances. And because there's a chemistry on and off the ice.

"They all buy into the system and they work well with each other," said Max Lagace, the Chicago Wolves' goalie who played 14 games for Vegas when Andre-Fleury and Malcolm Subban were injured. "They complete each other really well, and you can see that on the ice. It's great to watch."

Vegas Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant likes the grit and discipline of his expansion team, which is leading the Pacific Division.
Vegas Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant likes the grit and discipline of his expansion team, which is leading the Pacific Division. - Associated Press
The right coach

If anyone should have arrived in Vegas with something to prove, it was Gallant. After all, the 54-year-old was fired by new Panthers general manager Tom Rowe 22 games into the 2016-17 campaign after leading Florida (47-26-9) to the playoffs the previous season.

But Gallant, who also coached Columbus from 2004-07, felt no ill will toward his former employer and was just happy to get another opportunity.

Florida's loss has been Vegas' gain. Like Hawks coach Joel Quenneville, Gallant is a players' coach who won't overtax his team and knows when to give them days off.

He also allows them to make mistakes without fear of repercussions, something that goes a long way with athletes trying to make a name on a new team in a new city.

"I'm not hard on our players," said Gallant, who averaged 37 goals, 43 assists and 235 penalty minutes for the Detroit Red Wings from 1986-90. "I mean I want you to show up like any other coach does and do your job when you've got the opportunity.

"But we get a little more patience here, being an expansion team. Guys are going to make mistakes and they're going to go back on the ice and they're going to play through those mistakes. That's been my philosophy for a long time, and I think the players enjoy that."

In Las Vegas, hockey fans have embraced the Vegas Golden Knights, who are 17-2-1 at home this season.
In Las Vegas, hockey fans have embraced the Vegas Golden Knights, who are 17-2-1 at home this season. - Associated Press
The right city

Eleven years ago -- when 6,000 people were showing up to the United Center for games in February and March -- we talked to Jeremy Roenick about what it was like to play in the Chicago Stadium. The former Hawks forward said it was the "best arena in pro sports, bar none" and that the team "felt like we had a 2-goal lead before the game even started."

Let that soak in. Because when asked about the atmosphere inside T-Mobile Arena, Gallant's first words were: "I said this the other day -- and it's funny that I'm talking to the Chicago media -- it's like the old Chicago Stadium. The people never sit down."

From their first home game in October honoring the 58 victims of the Las Vegas shooting with 58 seconds of silence, fans have stood tall and embraced their new team.

"Every visiting team that's come in here so far says they've seen nothing like it," Gallant said. "It's a playoff atmosphere the whole time. It really is a big boost to our hockey team because the crowd is so loud. … Every night it's a party."

And if opponents party a bit too much before playing Vegas? Well, that's another advantage the Golden Knights are happy to have.

"Vegas is an amazing city," Lagace said. "I don't know what teams are doing. I'm sure it's tempting, but they are professionals, so I'm sure they make the right decision."

Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee deserves a lot of credit for the success enjoyed by his NHL expansion team in its first season.
Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee deserves a lot of credit for the success enjoyed by his NHL expansion team in its first season. - Associated Press
The right stuff?

The NHL has added 10 expansion teams in the modern era, with the first being San Jose in 1991-92. Only Tampa Bay (2004) and Anaheim (2007) have won Stanley Cups. And although Florida came close in 1993-94, none of those teams qualified for the playoffs in their first season.

When it came to building its roster, there's no doubt Vegas enjoyed some significant advantages, most notably a salary cap that didn't exist when the other nine franchises began. The NHL also allowed teams to protect only seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie or eight skaters and one goalie.

GM George McPhee deserves a lot of credit for making some brilliant moves as he put together a team that Gallant said has plenty of "character and leadership guys."

Still, Vegas hit a pair of roadbumps that figured to derail its 6-1-0 start when Fleury and Subban both were out with injuries.

Surely, the magic ride would end with a sickening thud as Vegas turned to third- and fourth-string goalies, right?

Wrong.

Oscar Dansk went 3-0-0 before getting injured on Oct. 30. Then Lagace came in, and though his numbers (.872, 3.79 GAA) were ugly, he went 6-6-1 to keep Vegas afloat.

"That's probably the turning point in the season when we weathered that storm," Gallant said.

Fleury has been back for almost a month and all he has done is go 5-1-1 with a ridiculous 1.41 goals-against average.

So can this team do the unthinkable and actually win the Stanley Cup?

It certainly seems possible, but don't ask Gallant to pull out any crystal balls.

"We're not even looking at that, honestly," he said. "People start talking playoffs; for me it's just about our next game. I mean we're still a long way from making the playoffs. …

"We're just trying to get 2 more points in the next game we play and go from there. If we keep playing well, the standings will take care of themselves. …

"We're having fun. We're not putting any pressure on our players. Go out and play, have fun and enjoy what's going on."

The Vegas Golden Knights, here celebrating another home victory, are the second highest-scoring team in the NHL this season.
The Vegas Golden Knights, here celebrating another home victory, are the second highest-scoring team in the NHL this season. - Associated Press

• Twitter: @johndietzdh

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