WINNIPEG — Spare parts. Castoffs. Rejects. The unwanted.
“Misfits,” James Neal added, interrupting to offer another name to the list he’s heard before Thursday’s 3-2 overtime win against the Winnipeg Jets.
Take one of those labels and paste it into a thesaurus search. What you’ll find is an endless array of monikers that have been applied to the Vegas Golden Knights, both right after they were assembled, and still to this day — even as they occupy the top spot in the Western Conference as of Friday.
It’s become a running narrative this season. A team that was forged out of a spare parts bin, built with the near certain likelihood they’d fail given, well, history.
They’d need better parts to put forth a better, more reliable product. Those parts would take some time to acquire. Some would have to be built in-house while others would be acquired through meticulous vetting to ensure the proper fit.
Few, if any, figured an unknown product would fit so seamlessly together. It’s like if Apple’s most recent iPhone X was the first iPhone, skipping all the refinement, the little detail adjustments and tweaks, and stumbling into a masterpiece on the first try.
For Neal, who has clearly paid attention to what has been written in print and spoken on TV and radio, the parts assembled perhaps finally had a platform to perform at peak efficiency.
“I think the best part is everyone had a fresh chance with a new team, a chance they maybe hadn’t had in the past — something to prove,” he said. “Whether you’re an established player or an unestablished player or a three-time Stanley Cup champion like (Marc-Andre Fleury), you still have something to prove.”
Neal said the various parts of the Golden Knights had to come together in short order. The fit, he says, has been nothing short of remarkable.
“We wanted to come in and work hard,” he said. “We knew we could be competitive with the group we had. There was no reason why would couldn’t come in and be a good team.”
Fellow forward Brendan Leipsic fits into the unestablished category that Neal explained.
Leipsic, a rookie, had six games of NHL experience prior to this season. Drafted by the Nashville Predators in the third round in 2012, Leipsic was eventually traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs. When the Leafs left him exposed, he was snatched up by George McPhee.
Since then, he’s played a further 39 NHL games.
“We were a team of a lot of guys who didn’t know each other,” Leipsic said. “We were in a situation unlike one that any of us had really been in.”
The mandate from head coach Gerard Gallant was simple: Come in, work hard.
“It will give us a chance to win,” Leipsic said, reiterating the words Gallant spoke when the team met for the first time last summer.
Leipsic said Gallant’s black and white approach to coaching has helped. Players know what they need to do. There’s no grey area.
“And I think guys like playing for each other,” Leipsic said, adding ‘blue collar’ to the list.
“It’s not a huge surprise to us.”
The Golden Knights aren’t infallible. They possess the flaws like any other team in the National Hockey League.
Gallant was not happy with his team’s game after Thursday’s win, despite his team winning its 34th game, which made them the most successful expansion team in its inaugural season, passing the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and the Florida Panthers, both who won 33 games during the 1993-94 season.
“We weren’t great,” Gallant said of his team’s effort. “We found a way. We know we’re playing a good team that plays a physical game. Like I said, I don’t think we were great and we didn’t play one of our better games but again we found a way.”
Resilient and relentless — the real identity of the Vegas Golden Knights.
“We’re a team that is four lines that continue to come at you shift after shift after shift,” Neal said. “We used (what was said about us) as motivation. We still are.”
Fittingly, Neal summed up his team by using something he’s heard many times before.
“It’s a good combination of parts.”