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Golden Knights rock the NHL with first-year success, journey to Stanley Cup Final

 

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All the Vegas Golden Knights had a year ago was a pseudo-roster of players and prospects.

A year later and the team is one of the hottest commodities in the NHL after cruising through the regular season and into the Stanley Cup Final, where the Cinderella ride ended watching Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals raise the Stanley Cup.

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NHL_Vegas_PrimaryVegas coach Gerard Gallant kept his players grounded during the season and playoffs and wound up being the Jack Adams Award winner as NHL Coach of the Year.

Even in accepting all the accolades, Gallant always put the credit on his players.

“Well, I don’t think you get here if you don’t use your hockey players,” said Gallant. “We’ve done it from Day 1. Like I said, there’s no reason for me not to use them because everybody competes, everybody battles, everybody is a part of our team. You’ve been there all year. That’s what we do. Guys compete hard, work hard. Do your job and you’ll play.”

Gallant also said that even when the Golden Knights advanced to the championship series to play Washington, he kept his team on an even keel.

“I don’t read a whole lot, I don’t watch the news a whole lot,” said Gallant. “I just want to focus on what’s going to happen. I think a lot of people said, ‘They had a great regular season, they had a great team, it’s a great story.’ I think our players believe that we’re as good as any team we’re going to play against. The L.A. Kings was a veteran team that went a long way in the playoffs, won Stanley Cups. It didn’t faze us. We were going to go play them, play them hard, see what happens. It wasn’t an expectation of, ‘Let’s go there and try to win.’ It’s, ‘Let’s go there and play our game’ – that’s all it was. When we got off to the great start against them, obviously to sweep a good team like L.A. was a big confidence builder for us. Then you go on to San Jose, another good solid hockey team. You look at the teams, there’s that much between every team in the NHL now.

“If you play well, you’re going to have a chance to win. That’s what we believe in.”

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That belief started to go into full swing almost at the start of the season after the mass shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas. The Golden Knights played all season with a purpose and at times, even raised a few eyebrows.

“I remember coming in after a lot of games and looking at each other and saying, ‘We found a way again tonight,’” Gallant said. “Not that we were surprised, it’s just that things are going well for us. Let’s keep the puck luck, whatever is happening is happening. It was sort of a joke after some games, get on a streak where we win five or six in a row, tough teams, good buildings, we just said, ‘We did it again tonight.’ It was sort of a joke amongst the coaches. But our team, like I said, they don’t surprise us anymore. They play hard, play well, give ourselves a chance to win. That’s all we ask.”

The Golden Knights, built with NHL retreads, promising young prospects obtained though the NHL Expansion Draft and cunning trades by general manager George McPhee, finished with a remarkable 51-24-7 regular-season record and 109 points to win the NHL’s Pacific Division in just their first year on the ice. The 109 points placed the Golden Knights fifth overall in the 31-team NHL – eight points behind the Nashville Predators, the top team in the league.

Part of that success is the way Gallant holds players accountable and makes them want to get better.

“You know what, it’s always been on my mind as a former player,” said Gallant. “You feel good about yourself when your coach feels good about you. I mean, I just think guys make mistakes – it’s going to happen in the game. Players don’t want to make mistakes, but the games would be pretty boring if nobody makes mistakes. No 2-on-1s, no breakaways. You ask your players to go out there, play hard, compete hard. Don’t worry about making a mistake. When you worry about making a mistake, what happens? You make mistakes. No, you try to be confident in your guys. They hold each other accountable. They really do. As a coach, play your guys, play your players, give them a second chance.”

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Golden Knights forward Cody Eakin said that as the season wore on, the entire team realized it was building something special in Vegas.

“I mean, thinking back on it, the first game in Dallas (a 2-1 win on the road), these guys are going to be good, got a whole ton of firepower,” said Eakin. “It was a hard game, one of the hardest first games I’ve ever played. But just the pace of play, the caliber of that team. We managed to get a win. That’s a good start for us. Going forward, obviously the home record, played a lot of games on the road. Going on the road, proving we can win on the road. Then the next step was the second half, which always tightens up.

“We just kept doing it. It wasn’t like we were sitting back and looking at it. We just kept doing it. Kept playing hard, having fun. Guys would step up at different times. It’s not like it was just one play and we’re like, ‘Okay, now we’re considered a good team.’ You know, at the start of the season, we never thought we were going to be a bad team. I don’t know if we ever expected we’d be where we are now.”

After falling in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final, Gallant was obviously distraught, but still found a way to be upbeat.

We had an outstanding year, but it doesn’t feel like it right now,” said Gallant. “I mean, nobody expected us to be here. We worked hard. We got to the Stanley Cup Final, showed everybody what we’re made of.

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“I learned a lot about my team. I think the guys competed every night. They never quit on each other. The few times in the year when we had the couple of tough spells, they were resilient all year long. They had fun. We had a great time this year. We had an unbelievable home record. We had unbelievable fans. Every day was fun for us. I mean, let’s face it. We started the season, and there was no expectation for our hockey club. Did the expectations change going into the playoffs? Sure they did because we had a great regular season and won the Pacific Division. Again, it was about coming to play and enjoying our time and working hard and giving ourselves a chance to win.”

And even with the offseason here and players like forward James Neal leaving as a free agent (for Calgary), the Golden Knights are now a free-agent destination, as evidenced by the team signing veteran forward Paul Stastny on July 1 and re-signing goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to a three-year contract extension.

“As I look forward, I can assure each and every one of you that the entire Golden Knights hockey organization including myself is committed to improving next year and every year thereafter,” added Golden Knights owner Bill Foley. “We will never give up and never give in. The Knight always advances and never retreats.”

Photos/Eric J. Fowler

— Matt Mackinder

(Aug. 27, 2018)