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Striking Gold: How Vegas became NHL’s best expansion team

Before Gerard Gallant embarked on his journey to coach the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, he and former boss Doug MacLean sat down for breakfast and wondered what was ahead.

”He didn’t know what the situation was,” MacLean said. ”He thought it was going to be tough.”

No one saw this coming – not Gallant, general manager George McPhee, their players, Vegas odds makers or anyone in hockey. Thanks to a never-before-seen combination of speed, motivation, confidence and goaltending, the Golden Knights already set the NHL record for victories by a first-year expansion team, sit comfortably atop the Pacific Division and are a near-lock to make the playoffs.

Vegas stockpiled draft picks and young talent with the long-term future in mind. It also got franchise goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, 50-point producer Jonathan Marchessault and 27-goal-scorer William Karlsson and went from the league’s most pleasant surprise to a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

”Didn’t think we’d be in first place at this time of the year, but the way they played and the confidence they got over the first 10 games, it grew with the team,” Gallant said. ”We’re a good hockey team, and we know it and when we play our game we’ve got a chance to beat anybody.”

With Bill Foley paying $500 million to get a team, commissioner Gary Bettman sought to ensure Vegas would be competitive, so McPhee got to pick from the best player pool of any expansion franchise thus far. Even with that advantage, the Golden Knights on paper looked like a team lacking top-end scorers and defensemen that would need Fleury to steal games.

”Everybody wanted them to be competitive, but they wanted them to be competitive enough but miss the playoffs by seven or eight points,” said MacLean, whose expansion 2000-01 Columbus Blue Jackets won just 28 games. ”This has caught them off-guard.”

The Westgate sports book opened the Golden Knights 200-1 to win the Cup and sold a handful tickets when they fell to 500-1 over the summer. After Westgate vice president Jay Kornegay said ”no one cared to bet them early,” he and his colleagues around Las Vegas risk losing a ton of money on futures wagers for them to win the Pacific Division, Western Conference and the Cup.

Off the ice, the Golden Knights became a rallying point for the community before they even played a game after the Oct. 1 shooting on the Strip killed 58 people and injured hundreds more. They won their first three and nine of their first 10, and Bettman said ”the bonding that has gone on is something that’s extraordinary.”

The bond between these players is multilayered, notably because All-Star winger James Neal pointed out everyone had something to prove after being left unprotected in the expansion draft or getting traded to Vegas. Gallant was even literally left at the curb by the Florida Panthers when they fired him on the road last season, and each night a different player is motivated to perform against his old team.

”You see a Tuesday night versus Columbus, Will Karlsson is really excited to play and he goes out there and has a terrific game and guys look towards that each and every night,” defenseman Nate Schmidt said. ”You look towards that guy to give you a little extra spark no matter what city you’re in.”

Previous expansion teams have had the same drive but couldn’t dream of this type of success. The Panthers and Mighty Ducks of Anaheim shared the old record with 33 victories in 1993-94, and Vegas is fast approaching Florida’s record 83 points with almost 30 games remaining.

”Their fourth line was my first line,” said veteran coach Barry Trotz, who added he met most of his players on the 1998-99 expansion Nashville Predators in the press box when they were healthy scratches the previous year. ”We didn’t get a 30- and a 40-goal scorer. We didn’t have that. We didn’t have a No. 1 goaltender.”

Analyst Ray Ferraro, who played for the expansion Atlanta Thrashers in 1999-2000, credited McPhee for putting the team together with an eye on the modern NHL and the way the game is headed.

”They didn’t even consider a player that couldn’t skate, that wasn’t fast, because that is the premier element of the game today,” Ferraro said. ”They went fast, fast, fast and fast. So when you play Vegas, if you can’t keep up, eventually they just wear you down.”

Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice said Vegas doesn’t just skate fast but makes it hard on teams by moving the puck fast and making quick, smart decisions all over the ice. Calgary Flames captain Mark Giordano said teams around the league are now using the Golden Knights as a measuring stick.

Even though it would take a historic fall for the Golden Knights not to make the playoffs, they’re trying to keep the expectations down internally.

”If the season ended tomorrow, then we’d be happy, but it doesn’t,” McPhee said. ”We all realize that it doesn’t mean anything until the season’s over and you know where you sit.”

There has been a noticeable evolution from the start of the season when players expected to make mistakes to now when they expect to win. Gallant has instilled enough belief in all his players that they’ve returned it tenfold.

”We are a group of guys that has come in Vegas with maybe not so much trust from all around the hockey world but a group of coaches that give us trust every night,” forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare said. ”When you play the right way, you create a little bit your bounces and you create your luck a bit and that gives you confidence.”

Confidence has been a constant for Vegas even after it lost Fleury, backup goaltender Malcolm Subban and No. 3 option Oscar Dansk to injury at the same time, staying afloat with fourth-stringer Maxime Lagace. Trotz said the Golden Knights have been ”playing with house money” all season, a feeling MacLean remembers from coaching the third-year Panthers in 1995-96 when they were in first place at Christmas.

”You get to a point where you don’t think you can lose,” MacLean said.

Long gone are the days of bare-bones expansion, and the Golden Knights’ success means Seattle is in line to get the same set of rules upon paying $650 million to become the 32nd team in a few years. With its three 2017 first-round picks all looking like top prospects and 12 selections in the top three rounds over the next three drafts, Vegas is already the blueprint for sustained success.

Everyone’s just waiting to see how this Cinderella season ends up.

”Before we crown them playoff champions here, there’s a lot of road to go,” Ferraro said. ”This is not a one-year flash. A lot of things are going right for them and that’s good planning and good fortune, but I think they’ve set themselves up for a real nice start to their franchise.”

The Buzzer: Raanta shutout, Brassard showcase, Blackhawks finally win

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Players of the Night:

Antti Raanta, Arizona Coyotes: Raanta shutout Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers, stopping all 40 shots sent his way for his first goose egg as a member of the Coyotes.

Derick Brassard, Ottawa Senators: The Derick Brassard Showcase continued on Saturday night. The Senators forward, who has been the subject of trade speculation leading up to the trade deadline in two weeks, scored in his fourth straight game and added two helpers in a 6-3 win against the New York Rangers.

Reilly Smith, Vegas Golden Knights: Smith extended his point streak to seven games, scoring twice and adding a helper in a 6-3 win against the Montreal Canadiens. Smith has five goals and seven assists during his streak and now has 51 points in 58 games this season.

Anders Nilsson, Vancouver Canucks: Nilsson turned aside 44 of the 45 shots he faced from one of the league’s hottest teams in the Boston Bruins. The Canucks obliged their goaltender, scoring six and chasing Tuukka Rask in a 6-1 win.

Jonathan Toews and the rest of the Chicago Blackhawks: Losers of eight straight coming into Saturday, the Blackhawks finally ended the streak, putting up seven goals against the Metropolitan Division-leading Washington Capitals. Toews had a goal and two assists in the game. It was Chicago’s first win of the month and their seven goals were half of the number they scored in their previous eight games.

Eddie Lack, New Jersey Devils: Lack wasn’t supposed to be playing against the league’s top team. But there he was on Saturday, stopping 48 of 51 shots against Stamkos, Kucherov and Co. He even out-dueled Andrei Vasilevskiy, who will likely win the Vezina in June. Impressive stuff.

Highlights of the Night:

Ryan Hartman, untouchable:

Nikita Scherbak’d:

Matt Murray did this two nights ago. Deja vu:

Two-pad stack alert:

Factoids of the Night:

The season can’t end fast enough for the Oilers:

The Golden Knights are creeping toward another record:

Evgeni Malkin hits 900:

MISC:

Scores:

Kings 4, Sabres 2

Ducks 3, Wild 2 (SO)

Senators 6, Rangers 3

Coyotes 1, Oilers 0

Golden Knights 3, Canadiens 3

Devils 4, Lightning 3

Penguins 5, Maple Leafs 3

Red Wings 3, Predators 1

Blackhawks 7, Capitals 1

Canucks 6, Bruins 1

Panthers 6, Flames 3


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Blackhawks fans tossed after racist taunts toward Capitals’ Devante Smith-Pelly

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Four Chicago Blackhawks fans were kicked out of Saturday’s game against the Washington Capitals at United Center after racially-charged taunts were made toward Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly.

Smith-Pelly, serving a five-minute major for fighting in the third period, got upset with a fan next to him who, according to the Washington Post, was chanting, “Basketball, basketball basketball,” toward Smith-Pelly, who is black. 

“There’s absolutely no place in a game of hockey, or a country, for racism,” Trotz said after the game. “I think it’s disgusting. There’s no place for it. The athletes in this country don’t deserve that. It just shows ignorance.”

Trotz said he hadn’t spoken with DSP about the incident, but said he was upset and his teammates had been talking with him.

DSP did not speak with the media following the game, which the Capitals lost 7-1.

February is Hockey is For Everyone month in the NHL.

The Blackhawks issued a statement following the game

““We were made aware of an incident at tonight’s game involving a small group of attendees who made harmful comments directed at Washington Capitals player Devante Smith-Pelly,” a Hawks spokesperson said. “The fans were immediately removed and we apologize to Smith-Pelly and the Washington Capitals organization. We are committed to providing an inclusive environment for everyone who attends our games and these actions will never be tolerated.”


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Should Miles Wood be suspended after boarding Vladislav Namestnikov? (video)

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He won’t have much of a defense, it would seem.

New Jersey Devils forward Miles Wood took off his responsible thinking cap on Saturday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

In the second period, Woods came barrelling in on the Lightning forward Vladislav Namestnikov. The latter had already ushered the puck up the ice, and with his back turned to Woods, the Devils sophomore appeared to leave his feet, driving his shoulder into the nameplate of Namestnikov’s jersey.

If that wasn’t enough, Andrej Sustr came in to defend his teammate and paid the price at the hands of Wood, who broke his visor with a punch, leaving Sustr bloodied.

Wood was given a boarding minor on the play and an additional two minutes for roughing after he left Sustr in a mess. It wouldn’t be at all shocking if Wood is summoned by the NHL’s player safety department.

Both Namestnikov and Sustr had to leave the game, but both returned in the third period.

The Devils won the game 4-3. Guess who scored the game-winner…


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Cam Talbot, furious with overturned goal, launches expletive-laden tirade

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang

Cam Talbot wasn’t too happy after losing to the bottom feeders of the NHL’s Western Conference on Saturday afternoon.

The Oilers, who have Connor McDavid, couldn’t manage to score a goal against a team that’s given up the third most to opposing teams this season.

And the goal they appeared to score to tie the game 1-1 in the third period was eventually overturned because of goaltender interference.

Video review confirmed that Patrick Maroon impeded Antti Raanta’s ability to move his blocker side arm freely, a call that Talbot took exception to following the game.

“It’s extremely frustrating, to have what seems like every single one of these calls go against us in the past two years is just unbelievable,” Talbot lamented to the media. “I’ve never seen anything like it. We challenge a goal, it stands. They challenge a goal on us for some reason it’s always waved off.

“I just don’t understand it, it’s the exact same play that we had last week against L.A. where the guy clips my blocker. We challenge and it’s still a goal. Last year in the playoffs against  Corey Perry, same play, takes my blocker with him, puck goes blocker side and it’s still a goal on us. There’s just no consistency and I’m f***ing sick of it.”

Answering another question, Talbot continued to drop f-bombs speaking to Robert Tychkowski of the Edmonton Journal.

“The fact that every single goal is disallowed against us and every single call or every single time we challenge it’s still upheld. I don’t f***ing get it. They’re the same f***ing plays every time and for some reason, the call goes against us these past two years. We haven’t won one challenge in the past two years. It’s ridiculous. I just don’t get it.” 

This looks one part frustration and another part sour grapes. There have been some blown calls this season, for sure, including against the Oilers.

Here.

Here.

And here.

But this one the Situation Room got right.

Meanwhile, Talbot’s Oilers were shutout for the seventh time this season. They continue to wildly underachieve, despite having names like McDavid and Draisaitl. And they have to watch former teammates like Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle light it up with their new teams.

Sure, Talbot and Co. can blame it a host of external issues. But he and the Oilers have to start looking within. They didn’t become bottom feeders because a goal got overturned.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck