As Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Luca Sbisa drove from his home in Southern California to Las Vegas for the start of training camp, an odd feeling came over him.
“You take that 15 highway, and all of a sudden you come around the mountains and see The Strip,” he said. “And I’m thinking, ‘What am I doing here? Am I here for fun?’ But I was there for hockey.”
The Golden Knights have been the surprise of the N.H.L., enjoying the best start of any expansion club in league history. They won eight of their first nine games before heading out on their first lengthy Eastern road trip, which began Monday with a 6-3 loss to the Islanders.
From the beginning, Sbisa said, the new squad developed a close-knit dynamic, because of — not despite — the fact that no one knew who fit where.
“Training camp was the most competitive one I have ever been at,” said Sbisa, 27, who was selected in the expansion draft from the Vancouver Canucks. “Everyone has something to prove. Everyone was fighting for ice time, and the coaches didn’t have much history with the players, so everyone had a fair chance. I think it brought out the best of every single player, and that’s why we’ve had a good start. It’s a snowball effect.”
The Golden Knights’ scoring leader entering Monday was James Neal, who helped the Nashville Predators reach the Stanley Cup Finals last season. He had seven goals and three assists through the first nine games. Sbisa had six assists, and Oscar Lindberg had chipped in four goals.
“It’s been smooth getting everyone on the same page,” said Lindberg, a steady center for the Rangers the past two seasons. “And the town is crazy for hockey, way better than I could have imagined.”
The Golden Knights have been winning despite an unusual goaltending situation.
They traded the backup Calvin Pickard to Toronto the opening week of the season after claiming Malcolm Subban from Boston to be Marc-Andre Fleury’s understudy.
Fleury, fresh off winning another Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins, was the biggest name in the expansion draft and was expected to be the face of the new franchise. But after starting 3-1, he was sidelined by a concussion.
Subban won the next two games before he, too, was injured. So the Knights have now turned to the rookie Oscar Dansk, who has three wins and the first shutout in team history, a 7-0 home victory over the Colorado Avalanche before this six-game trip began.
“It’s about the next guy up and being able to play and we’re getting to know our kids,” Vegas Coach Gerard Gallant said. “Our team is working hard. It doesn’t matter who is in net.”
Against the Islanders, the goaltending merry-go-round caught up to the Golden Knights when the rookie Maxime Lagace was forced into action after Dansk left with an apparent lower body injury after John Tavares had tied the contest at 2-2 in the second period.
Lagace, the fourth Golden Knights goaltender in 10 games, gave up a goal by Mathew Barzal late in the second, then allowed third-period scores by Cal Clutterbuck, Nikolay Kulemin and Tavares as the Golden Knights lost for only the second time this season.
“It’s crazy but we’ll find a way,” Lagace said of the team’s goaltending personnel troubles. “It’s the not the start I wanted, but we will regroup and get back at it tomorrow.”
Gallant emphasized that the excitement surrounding the team’s arrival and the raucous sellout crowds at T-Mobile Arena, where the team played seven of its first ten games, had helped.
“Crowds bring a playoff atmosphere; it’s like a party every night,” said Gallant, who led the Florida Panthers to the playoffs two seasons ago before he was fired midway through last season. “They are having fun and the guys are just coming to the rink and having fun.”
There also have been emotional challenges for the young franchise. The shooting outside the Mandalay Bay casino in which 59 people died happened nine days before the Golden Knights’ first home game, and the team played a role in helping the city begin to heal.
The veteran defenseman Deryk Engelland, who has lived in Las Vegas since he joined the Wranglers of the ECHL in 2003, was chosen to speak before the home opener against Arizona. The crowd included emergency medical workers, who accompanied the players onto the ice.
“I was pretty nervous; I worked hard to memorize my speech over a few days,” said Engelland, 35, the team’s elder statesman, who played for Calgary the past three seasons. “You want to get out there and make a difference as much as you can. I think it helped the crowd getting into it and helped everyone regroup.”
Sbisa, who attended a concert at the location of the shooting two nights before it occurred on Oct. 1, said he immediately felt a kinship with the people of his new hockey home.
“You saw firsthand how the city came together,” he said. “So many people were saying, ‘Go out there and get that first win. Give us a distraction and give us a reason to smile.’ It was special. It meant a lot to us, too.”
Embarking on a long trip, which includes stops in Boston, Toronto and Montreal after a visit to the Rangers on Tuesday, the Golden Knights will have more bonding opportunities — and chances to prove they can win away from the energy of home.
“This team is already as tight as any other team I’ve been on because we had no choice but to make the extra effort to come to camp and get to know everyone,” Sbisa said. “Everyone went through the same process. It brought us closer together.”
Defenseman Nate Schmidt, a former Washington Capital, said he was grateful to be free of the stifling Beltway traffic. Along with many of his teammates, he lives in Summerlin, minutes from the team’s practice rink. And he is heartened when he is recognized away from the ice.
“People are happy we are in town, and we’re trying to get out in the community as much as we can,” he said.
Amid the rainy weather the Golden Knights experienced over the weekend in their first New York visit, Schmidt laughed as he mulled the sunny nature of desert life.
“When we saw the storm, I realized I hadn’t seen clouds in weeks,” he said.
Published at Tue, 31 Oct 2017 03:26:04 +0000