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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.”

Bruins will way to Game 7 win against Maple Leafs

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Once again, the Boston Bruins finished a Game 7 against the Toronto Maple Leafs, riding an overpowering third period. In the case of Wednesday’s game, the end result was a 7-4 win for the Bruins.

The 2018 edition featured some similarities to the Bruins’ 5-4 win back in 2013.

  • A Maple Leafs team headed for the summer shaking their heads and with some serious soul-searching to do.
  • The heartache that comes with the Leafs giving up leads. Toronto was up 1-0, 2-1, and 4-3. This wasn’t a collapse of the “It was 4-1” variety, but the Maple Leafs squandered multiple leads nonetheless.

  • The Bruins simply ran away with things in the third period. Boston went from being down 4-3 to winning 7-4. That domination included the Bruins keeping the Maple Leafs from registering a shot on goal through the first eight minutes of the final frame.

In the case of this latest Game 7, there were times when it seemed like the last shot on goal might be the winner.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Really, it was a nightmare game for both goalies. Frederik Andersen‘s Game 7 heartache is no longer limited to his time with the Anaheim Ducks, as he gave up six goals, including a few that are likely to haunt him during the off-season. The Lightning must be licking their chops at the prospect of exploiting what might be a fragile goalie in Tuukka Rask; the Bruins ended up on top in this one, yet Rask gave up four goals on 24 shots.

(Maybe a solid finish will help bolster his self-esteem? Rask stopped all eight Maple Leafs SOG in the third period after giving up those four goals on the first 18 shots he faced.)

If you want to summarize Game 7 in one video clip, Jake DeBrusk‘s second goal of the night (and eventual game-winner) could suffice. The Bruins simply demanded this win, showing off their skill and will while flabbergasting the overmatched Maple Leafs and a struggling Andersen:

Several players came up big on each side. DeBrusk scored those two goals and was quite the presence overall. Charlie McAvoy logged 26:43 of ice time with a +1 rating, while a blocked shot apparently didn’t really throw off Zdeno Chara, who managed a +2 rating and 28:38 TOI. Despite some warranted criticisms, David Krejci did manage to generate three assists, adding to a substantial playoff resume for his career. Patrick Marleau provided more than just a “veteran presence” for the Maple Leafs, scoring two goals during a zany first period.

Still, when it comes to the Maple Leafs, many will linger on those who fell short.

Andersen’s struggles were considerable, rounding out a remarkably hot-and-cold series overall. Auston Matthews failed to score a point despite firing four SOG, finishing the series with just a single goal and single assist. Jake Gardiner had an awful Game 7, suffering a -5 rating and absorbing some of the blame for multiple bad moments.

Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reports that Gardiner said “most” of the loss was on him and that the defenseman had tears in his eyes while asking questions.

“I didn’t show up,” Gardiner said.

The Bruins eliminated the Maple Leafs in an exhilarating fashion, carrying over an impressive regular season of puck-hogging play. They have plenty of room for improvement, something Jack Adams finalist Bruce Cassidy will surely emphasize as they turn their sights to a rested, versatile opponent in the Lightning.

If it’s anything like Bruins – Leafs, it should be thrilling … and maybe a goalie’s nightmare.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Second round schedule, TV info

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The second round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs is now set, thanks to the Boston Bruins winning Game 7 over the Toronto Maple Leafs, 7-4. The Bruins will move on to face the Tampa Bay Lightning, while the Pittsburgh Penguins will meet the Washington Capitals to complete the Eastern Conference bracket. Out West, the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets will battle out of the Central Division and the Vegas Golden Knights take on the San Jose Sharks.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Here’s the full second round schedule, which kicks off with two games on Thursday night:

* if necessary
TBD – To Be Determined

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Kapanen overwhelms Marchand, scores ridiculous goal

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To the chagrin of the coaches and goalies, the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs are keeping things hectic during the second period of Game 7.

Kasperi Kapanen seems like he’s perpetually battling for a permanent/more prominent spot with the Maple Leafs, but it’s not for a lack of trying or moxie. He’s been hitting posts on some near-misses lately, but saved some magic for tonight.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH THIS DECISIVE GAME LIVE.

You can see that in a 4-3 goal that currently stands as the Maple Leafs’ lead. Kapanen overpowers Brad Marchand and then outwaits Tuukka Rask for an absolutely tremendous shorthanded goal.

(Check out that goal in the video above this post’s headline.)

Impressive, especially considering who that came against. At one point, the Maple Leafs had converted on both of their shots on goal early in the second period to go from being down 3-2 to up 4-3. As mentioned after that wild first period, you have to wonder about both goalies’ confidence, but that’s especially true of Rask right now.

To be fair, Kapanen’s showed a real knack for scoring big goals so far during his brief NHL career. As you may remember, he scored the game-winner in double overtime of Game 2 against the Washington Capitals during that tight series to start the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He also helped them punch their ticket to the postseason in 2016-17 with his first NHL goal.

Then again, maybe this sort of goal is in the blood? Kasperi Kapanen’s shorthanded goal feels reminiscent of a great goal by his father Sami Kapanen:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Bruins – Leafs Game 7 off to wild start, Reilly hit by puck

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You can forgive fans of the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs for hyperventilating right now, unless they’re merely staring blankly at their screens.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH THIS DECISIVE GAME LIVE.

Game 7 accelerated to 100 mph seemingly in mere seconds on Wednesday:

  • After a Sean Kuraly penalty, Patrick Marleau deflected a puck past Tuukka Rask to give Toronto a stunning 1-0 lead off of a power-play goal just 2:05 into the contest.
  • A delay of game infraction gave the Bruins a chance to tie things up on the power play, and they did just that as David Krejci and David Pastrnak set up Jake DeBrusk. That happened 4:47 into the game.
  • Less than two minutes later, Patrick Marleau scored again, giving Toronto a 2-1 edge that wouldn’t last.
  • The two teams combined for four goals through less than half of the first period, as Danton Heinen showed why he should be playing with the 2-2 goal with 11:50 remaining in the opening frame.
  • The Bruins took their first lead (3-2) of Game 7 with less than a minute left in the first period thanks to a goal by Patrice Bergeron.

Those were just the goals, too, as there were some close calls, making you wonder about the confidence of Rask and Frederik Andersen:

The two teams are also accruing some bumps and bruises, which must be to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s liking.

In the most dramatic instance, Brad Marchand ducked a high Zdeno Chara shot, leaving an unsuspecting Morgan Rielly to take a puck to the face. It’s a scary moment, although the good news is that Rielly was able to return for the beginning of the second period.

Yikes.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Chara also seemed stung by a blocked shot during the first period, as he took a puck to his ankle/foot area. He didn’t appear to miss any time, and it would be tough to imagine him not fighting through it during a Game 7, yet you wonder if the hulking defenseman’s mobility might be hindered after that.

The Bruins and Leafs already put on a show through 20 minutes. We’ll see who’s left standing to face the Bolts, whether this game ends in regulation or hits sudden death in a Game 7.

*Gulp*

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.