Vegas overcomes poor stretch and gets back on track with Hawks up next

Updated 12/5/2018 7:52 PM
  • Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt (88) is congratulated by Jonathan Marchessault after scoring the game-winner in the third period Tuesday against the Washington Capitals.

    Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt (88) is congratulated by Jonathan Marchessault after scoring the game-winner in the third period Tuesday against the Washington Capitals. Associated Press

  • Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, here blocking a shot by Washington's Andre Burakovsky, is one reason the Knights are on such a roll of late.

    Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, here blocking a shot by Washington's Andre Burakovsky, is one reason the Knights are on such a roll of late. Associated Press

LAS VEGAS -- When the Vegas Golden Knights won eight of their first nine games last year, most pundits figured coach Gerard Gallant's team would return to earth at some point.

No way in God's tan desert could an expansion team possibly be that good.

Had to be a fluke. An aberration. God showing he has a sense of humor by allowing a team based in Sin City to be so good.

Instead, Vegas kept shocking us all the way into June when the ride finally ended against Alex Ovechkin's Washington Capitals in the Stanley Cup Final.

"I don't think they took anything for granted," said Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. "They had that chip on their shoulder, regardless of what team they were playing on (before)."

Year 2 began the way we all expected last season to go -- with 4 losses in the first five games and 13 in the first 22.

See, the Golden Knights must have been a one-year fluke. Finally, they're getting what they deserve.

Right? Well, not so fast.

Since that rather pedestrian start, Vegas (15-13-1) has won six of its last seven games, including an emphatic 8-3 victory over the Blackhawks on Nov. 27 at the United Center. Just like that, Gallant's squad is back in the wild-card picture and can add 2 more points Thursday if they beat the Blackhawks for the second time in 10 days.

"What the Penguins did a few years ago -- not only having back-to-back championships, but Finals appearances -- it's difficult, to say the least," said 22-year-old forward Alex Tuch, who scored 15 goals as a rookie and already has 8 in 21 games this season. "You know what? We have pretty high expectations for ourselves, and we didn't meet those at the start of the year.

"We're figuring it out a little bit and getting back to close to where we were last year."

No roaring start

Three big factors contributed to Vegas' slow start:

• A brutal schedule. The Golden Knights played five of their first six games on the road, returned for a five-game homestand, left for Nashville and St. Louis, came home for one game and then went to Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Boston.

Out of breath yet? Because they certainly were.

• Nate Schmidt's suspension. Vegas' 27-year-old defenseman missed the first 20 games for violating the NHL/NHLPA's Performance Enhancing Substances Program.

He vehemently denied the findings, saying there's no way he could have received performance enhancement "from the trace amount that inadvertently got into my system."

Vegas is 7-2-0 and has allowed just 22 goals -- 7 of which came in one game -- since Schmidt returned. Oh, and he scored the game-winning goal with just 1:25 remaining in a 5-3 victory over Washington on Tuesday.

• Poor work ethic. Whether they were scoring or not, Gallant's team never took a second off last season. They hit, chased you down, flipped the ice in their favor and frustrated teams to the point of exhaustion.

That wasn't happening early on in this campaign. "We weren't working hard enough," Jonathan Marchessault admitted. "Now we're working better."

Why so good?

Most successful hockey teams build from the goalie on out, so when three-time Stanley Cup winner Marc-Andre Fleury is behind the pipes, any team would be off to a pretty good start.

In front of Fleury, there's a group of defensemen that is among the best in the league. Deryk Engelland (571 games), Nick Holden (403), Brayden McNabb (343), Schmidt (285), Colin Miller (214) and Shea Theodore (143) boast plenty of experience and more than enough ability.

Across the ice Thursday, the Blackhawks likely will trot out four of the following five D-men: Brandon Davidson (159 games), Erik Gustafsson (103), Gustav Forsling (89), Jan Rutta (78) and Henri Jokiharju (25). It doesn't take an expert to see why the Hawks are struggling, while the Golden Knights are thriving.

Of course when the Golden Knights fall behind, they have plenty of firepower to mount a comeback.

Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, Tuch, Cody Eakin and new addition Max Pacioretty have combined for 48 goals. Even the hard-hitting Ryan Reaves, who signed a two-year, $5.55 million deal in the off-season, is getting in on the act with 6 goals.

All of that talent, which includes the struggling Reilly Smith (4 goals), is nice to have. But Reaves gives a pretty big stick tap to Gallant as well.

"Confidence is a real thing and (he) allows you to play with that," said Reaves, who played for the Blues from 2010 to 2017. "If you go out and make a mistake, he's not going to hold it against you. He might let you know about it, but you're going out the next shift and he's going to trust you to go rectify that mistake.

"That's why you saw so many guys have career years last year."

Ace in the hole:

Opponents that have a day or two off before playing the Golden Knights can put themselves at a distinct disadvantage if they lack willpower. From blackjack to craps to slot machines -- to much more salacious forms of entertainment -- there's no shortage of ways to exhaust yourself before game time.

In their brief history, the Golden Knights are 37-13-3, including 8-3-1 this season, at T-Mobile Arena. As Gallant says, it's a party every night.

"It's as strong or stronger (this year)," he said. "Every night's amazing -- doesn't matter if it's a weekend or during the week. The crowd is unbelievable."

There's no doubt that the players feed off that energy. Last season the atmosphere certainly took Marchessault by surprise.

"Didn't expect that," he said. "Didn't expect first of all for it to be packed every game. And it is.

"The music in warmup, the entertainment during the game, everything is just unreal. … We couldn't be more happy as a team to be playing in Vegas. They bring so much joy to us."

Add it all up -- from the roster to the coach to the rabid fans -- and it's no wonder this team continues to rake in victory after victory.

"I've been on teams where you hit a slump and you're having 30-minute meetings every day," Reaves said. "It's miserable coming to the rink.

"Not one day have I been miserable coming to the rink, even when we were getting (crushed), giving up 7 goals. Coming to the rink the next day, I want to be there and I want to get back to work.

"That's the atmosphere (they've) created here."

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