LAS VEGAS — The other day, the NHL released the hashtags for the league’s 32 teams for this season. The Vegas Golden Knights have two — #VegasBorn and #TheGoldenAge — the latter being the team’s theme for their sixth season in the league.
Perhaps the Knights can add a third — #VegasReborn. They’re off to a 2-0 start and looking like a team that might be able to accomplish something good come next spring.
Yes, two games is a small sample size. But when you have a young goaltender playing like a veteran, when two of your injured players are skating as if they never were on the shelf, when you’re getting bottom-six scoring and all four lines playing with good energy, there’s reason aplenty for optimism.
Remember, this team missed the playoffs for the first time in their brief five-year existence last year and changes were forthcoming for Year Six. A new coach. The top goal-scorer sent packing. Deciding to keep some of their younger players rather than go after the shiny new toy.
If you’ve seen the opening two contests — a 4-3 win at Los Angeles Tuesday and a 1-0 victory over Chicago in Thursday’s home opener at sold-out T-Mobile Arena, you can see the differences in the way the Golden Knights approach playing the game and how they appear to be getting the hang of Bruce Cassidy’s system.
The forwards are getting back and helping the defense. The puck possession and the forecheck in the other team’s end is stronger. The passes are smarter and are leading to quality scoring chances.
There is a certain amount of freedom for everyone in Cassidy’s system and it probably makes for a happier dressing room. Of course, the room’s been closed for the last couple years due to the pandemic but in the short time it has been back open, players are loose, they’re smiling and they seem to be getting along.
Those were the traits we saw emerge in Year One. You remember what Vegas did, right? Made it to the Stanley Cup Final and was within three victories of hoisting it. That was a group that genuinely liked being together, liked playing for their coach and found ways to win hockey games.
And while it’s way too early to declare a renaissance in Knightsville, I’m seeing signs that the good times may be returning to the place they call “The Fortress.”
Logan Thompson is playing goal like a veteran all-star. He’s quickly earning the trust of the guys skating in front of him and he is handling his business. He certainly was up to the task Thursday, stopping 25 shots en route to his second career NHL shutout.
Jack Eichel is dominant when the puck is on his stick. He scored Tuesday against L.A. and was finding open teammates against the Blackhawks more often than not. He’s skating with renewed confidence and displaying he skill that made him an elite player in the NHL when he was in Buffalo prior to his neck injury a couple years ago.
Same for Mark Stone, who is moving well following back surgery and doing the things that he’s known for doing. He scored the game-winner with 24 seconds to go against the Kings. He is using that long stick of his to disrupt the other team’s attempts to beat Vegas in transition while at the same time, make smart plays to find his linemates.
This team is playing with good energy early on. They’re playing with intelligence too. Paul Cotter’s goal against Chicago Thursday was the result of his high IQ as he looked off Reilly Smith in a 2-on-1 scenario, got the Chicago defender to go with Smith and get goalie Alex Stalock to lean Smith’s way. By the time the Blackhawks realized Cotter wasn’t giving up the puck, it was already on its way over Stalock’s shoulder and in the net.
“I had a 2-on-1 earlier and I passed instead of shooting,” Cotter said. “I knew I was shooting this one.”
The Knights also have the roster settled with the return of forward William Carrier from an injury offered in the first preseason game, and defenseman Nic Hague, who missed the entire preseason after he held out for a new contract as a restricted free agent. Both made their season debuts Thursday.
But the Knights are still in the learning process. Cassidy knows that.
“I don’t think we’re anywhere near our potential,” he said. “You want to play the right way where you give yourself a chance to win.
“We were cleaner in L.A. than we were (Thursday). We’ll take that as a positive and try and clean up some things.”
The Knights play in Seattle Saturday against the Kraken, who are in their second season and appear to be an improved club. Witness the Kraken’s 4-1 win Thursday on the road over the Kings. But Vegas’ 2-0 start can only help the team’s confidence and Cassidy knows every point matters.
“You don’t win anything in October,” Cassidy said. “But you can get behind the 8-ball. We’re glad to have the start we have.”
Indeed. Who needs a hashtag with #8ball?”