LAS VEGAS — On this night six years ago, the Vegas Golden Knights made their home debut. A grand celebration was planned for the NHL’s 31st club and it was supposed to be a joyous evening.
Then came the mass shooting on Oct. 1, 2017 at a country music concert across from Mandalay Bay that claimed the lives of 58 people. That number would grow to 60 and hundreds were left injured.
The celebratory theme was put on hold. Joy and fun gave way to somberness, reflection and respect for the dead and wounded. Defenseman Deryk Engelland comforted everyone with his words that the heartbroken community would heal together and that we were all “Vegas Strong.”
Tuesday, there was another celebration planned. And this one went off without a hitch as the Knights raised their Stanley Cup championship banner to the T-Mobile Arena rafters. And as was the case on the night of the inaugural home opener, this one ended up victorious as the Knights defeated Seattle, 4-1.
“We weren’t on top of our game early but I thought we would find it eventually,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “We didn’t give them a lot off the rush, which is how they like to play. But it was a good win.”
It wasn’t that long ago the team was skating around the ice with the Cup. And it has been a fun summer for the players, coaches and team officials who got to create their own special memories during their personal day with Lord Stanley.
But here they were, now tasked with defending their championship against the Kraken, the NHL’s 32nd team and one which aspires to do what the Knights did in six years, if not sooner.
The Cup came out with captain Mark Stone. Stone then pulled the lever on a special slot machine (How Vegas!) and the banner rose to the top the rink, the fans chanting “Go Knights Go!”
So amid a regular season record 18,724 gold towel-waving Medieval Maniacs as the VGK fans like to refer to themselves, the banner went up, owner Bill Foley cranked the rally siren, the puck was down and the defense of their title began.
“It was great,” Stone said of using a slot machine to help hoist the banner. “We love this city and we love playing here. So that was pretty cool.”
Jack Eichel, who finished things off with an empty net goal, said the players weren’t asked for their input for the pregame ceremony and that was fine.
“A complete surprise,” he said. “But I thought it was great. To be part of a banner ceremony is very special and I am honored to be part of this team.”
Cassidy said: “I thought the slot machine was freakin’ cool. The banner itself is a great design. Once again, they did a great job with the creativity for the ceremony.”
Any hangover the Knights might have had early on quickly disappeared as they built a 2-0 first-period lead thanks to goals from Chandler Stephenson and Jonathan Marchessault that grew to 3-0 on Ivan Barbashev’s breakaway goal early in the second.
The Kraken had a great opportunity in the third period after Brett Howden was assessed a match penalty for an illegal hit to the head of Brandon Tanev. But Seattle failed to threaten on the five-minute power play as the Knights got some exemplary play on the penalty kill from Stone, Eichel and William Karlsson. They finished the game with just 10 forwards as William Carrier was injured in the second period and did not return.
“The guys did a great job in front of me,” said Adin Hill, who got the start in goal and turned aside 32 of the 33 shots he faced.
It’s hard to win the Cup. Everybody knows that. But it’s harder to defend. The last team to go back-to-back was the Tampa Bay Lightning, which won it in 2020 and again in 2021. Granted, the second one came in the Covid bubble in Edmonton, but it still counts.
The days of dynasties like the New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s are likely done. The salary cap has too much impact on a club keeping its roster in championship form for a long stretch.
The Knights had to do some off-season juggling to their roster. Reilly Smith, one of the Original Misfits, was sent to Pittsburgh so Barbashev could stay in Vegas. Phil Kessel, the NHL’s all-time ironman, was not resigned. Hill, the goaltender who heroically stepped into the breech when Laurent Brossoit was hurt in the second round against the Oilers, was willing to stay for $4.9 million a season for the next two years, which is essentially what Robin Lehner is making not to play.
Will it work?
The Knights lost two of their starting six defensemen in the preseason as Alec Martinez and Zach Whitecloud got hurt and started the year on the injured reserve and LTIR list respectively Tuesday. More injuries are sure to follow. Hey, it’s hockey. It’s a tough, physical game played over close to seven months. Guys get hurt.
The Knights believe they have enough depth to survive the injury bug. We’ll see. They may be without Carrier for a while as he suffered an upper body injury and Howden likely is looking at a suspension for the hit on Tanev so it could be a chance for Dorofeyev or Jakub Demek to see action Thursday when the Knights play the Sharks in San Jose.
“Things now become real,” Cassidy said. “We’ll probably have a lot of guys with bumps and bruises in the morning.
“We’ll be getting everybody’s best shot. But that’s fine. I think it’s a sign of respect and we’ll take it.”