LAS VEGAS — The brief but spirited practice in front of a packed house of maybe 800 or so at City National Arena had ended and as the Vegas Golden Knights filed into their dressing room, you could see the smiles and the glint in their eyes beyond the scruffy beards they have been growing since mid-April.
When you’re one of the last two teams remaining vying for the Stanley Cup, you’ve earned the right to laugh, chirp a little and feel good about things. I’m guessing the Florida Panthers, the last team standing in the Knights’ way, feels exactly the same, maybe even more so given they were the last team to qualify for the playoffs and needed some unexpected help to get there.
But Vegas also had more than its share of bumps along the way to playing for the Cup. Yet, they managed to find a path to overcome any calamitous moments. I mean, how mean teams used five goaltenders and lived to tell about it?
How did the Knights manage to do it?
You have to go back to September. Bruce Cassidy had taken over for Pete DeBoer as the team’s head coach, its third in six seasons. The mood inside the dressing room was becoming lighter and brighter. Guys like Jack Eichel, who had played part of the 2021-22 season, were feeling more comfortable. The six players who had been there from the start were buying in to Cassidy’s plan. The veterans who had Stanley Cup rings — Alec Martinez, Alex Pietrangelo, Chandler Stephenson and Phil Kessel — were helping set the tone for the room. And captain Mark Stone was fulfilling his role perfectly, making sure everyone who came in to pull on a VGK sweater felt welcomed.
“I noticed it when I first walked into the room,” Cassidy said Thursday. “I think it’s good when guys get along.”
Not just get along. But trust, both each other and the coach they play for. Jonathan Marchessault told me back in December that the climate in the Knights’ dressing room felt like Year One. And we all know what happened then – a trip to the Stanley Cup Final.
‘Every coach is different,” Marchessault said following Thursday’s practice. “(Cassidy) has been honest with everyone and you have to respect that.”
That first season, the team bonded by doing things together. Yes, it took a tragedy of incomprehensible proportions to help facilitate that bonding following the Oct. 1, 2017 mass shooting across from Mandalay Bay, But that group did virtually everything together. And remember, they didn’t have a captain that first season. Instead, it was a “leadership group” of veterans that included Marc-Andre Fleury, Deryk Engelland and David Perron to help formulate the ties that bound the team. It could have been a football pool or a png-pong tournament or an outing while on the road. But that fostered a respect for each other and an esprit-de-corps that carried them to within three games of capturing the Cup. And who knows what might’ve happened had Brayden Holtby not managed to use the paddle of his goalie’s stick to deny Alex Tuch late in Game 2?
For Martinez, who won the Cup twice while a member of the Los Angeles Kings last decade, the tenor in the Vegas room feels an awful lot like the one that existed in L.A.
“Absolutely,” he said. “The intangibles are there. How guys get along. How they laugh and have fun. But then there’s a time to get serious and be ready to play and win. We’ve got that with this group here.
“It helps to have character in the room and we have a lot of veteran players. But it also helps to have characters, guys who can keep things loose. And we have that too.”
Chandler Stephenson said last year’s team, which lost 505 man-games due to injuries, weren’t around together long enough to develop a chemistry. And despite players missing significant time this year, the core group in the dressing room was intact and helped foster a kinship.
“It was a process to get to where we are,” he said. “But I think the fact we’re winning and we’ve done it despite losing a lot of guys helped us.”
Brayden McNabb, another of the Original Six Knights, agreed with Stephenson — winning helps a lot.
“It takes care of those questions of chemistry,” he said. “But it’s different guys this year and to be a good team, you want the new guys to feel comfortable and welcome. I think we’ve done a good job with that.”
That’s where Stone sets the tone. As captain, he is the lead of the welcome wagon. Whether you were called up from Henderson of the American Hockey League for a day or you’ve been traded at the deadline as was the case with Ivan Barbashev, Teddy Blueger and Jonathan Quick, feeling at home and fitting in are two huge items.
“They’re your teammates and you want them to feel good and help the team win,” Stone said, himself a part of a trade when Vegas acquired him from Ottawa on trade deadline day in 2019. “ I think our room has been good all year, even with all the injuries we had and all the changes to the lineup.”
It speaks to the strength and importance of playing for each other and accepting whatever role the coach outlines for you. The players accepted Cassidy to a man and even when he had to make hard decisions, like not putting Kessel, a Stanley Cup champion from his days with Pittsburgh, in the lineup, it never became an issue.
Did Kessel like being benched? Absolutely not. But he didn’t create any dissension in the room and he has remained supportive of those who are in the lineup while keeping himself ready just in case Cassidy needs him.
Whether all this Kumbaya results in skating around the ice with the Stanley Cup and having a parade down the Las Vegas Strip in the next couple of weeks remains to be seen. But one thing’s for certain, the Knights probably aren’t in this position had it not been for the culture the players established at the start of the season.
“At the end of the day, it’s the players,” Marchessault said. “The fact we’re here right now is proof we get along.”