Life as a Golden Knights player is pretty good in Las Vegas

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LAS VEGAS — It took 112 years for the city of Las Vegas to finally get a major sports team, and its first year couldn’t have gone any better. 

An NHL expansion team in the Stanley Cup Final? No one was thinking that in the first year, not even Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley, who famously aimed for “playoffs in three, Cup in six.”

The excitement about the team coming to town was evident in the build up to the their first game. Around 5,000 fans showed up outside T-Mobile Arena in Nov. 2016 to learn the team’s nickname and see the logo. Every game night has been a sellout and winning helped create an even bigger buzz around the city. Life has been pretty good for the players.

“Winning helps, sure. But for it to grow as quickly as it has it’s a surprise,” said defenseman Deryk Engelland, who played parts of two seasons with the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers from 2013-2015. “You knew it was going to take some time to grow but you didn’t think it was going to be this quick.”

Go to any Golden Knights practice at City National Arena and you’ll find a packed house. The interest became so great during the playoffs that attendance was eventually limited for their skates, with lines forming outside the rink hours before the players took to the ice. Merchandise sales? Well, just add that to the long list of things tied to this team that went above and beyond.

“It’s crazy to think that there wasn’t any franchise here before,” said defenseman Shea Theodore, “and the love we’re getting from the city and the fans, we’re going out to eat, people are coming up to us and taking pictures.”

Speaking of meals, there have been those times that players have been out to eat and the bill was picked up by a fan. Or, if you’re general manager George McPhee, you’ll get a standing ovation when you walk in somewhere to grab a bite.

“Reap the benefits while you can, someone said,” said defenseman Colin Miller. “They like taking care of us and we try to do the same for them.”

For many of the players, their perception of Las Vegas from the outside — the bright lights, the celebrities, the gambling — changed after they settled in their new homes.

“I don’t think a lot of people realize the sense of community there really is in Vegas,” said Miller. “I know I didn’t realize it until I got there. It’s been awesome. The fans are behind you there. It seems like they’re everywhere. Everyone’s got a t-shirt or a hat or something like that. It’s a pretty fun place to call home.”

Ryan Reaves wasn’t a member of the “Golden Misfits” until late February. While with the Pittsburgh Penguins earlier this season, he played a game in Vegas against the Golden Knights and echoed a lot of the same sentiments that had been felt around the league.

“At the beginning of the year, you don’t know how it’s going to work. A lot of tourists going to Vegas. It’s a hot place,” he said. “I don’t think anybody’s going to go sit in a rink for that long when it’s that hot outside, but you get here and everybody was dead-wrong, that’s for sure.”

Some members of the Golden Knights, like head coach Gerard Gallant, like to keep things low-key, so you won’t find him on the strip bumping into any celebrities. Then there’s Cody Eakin, who’s taken advantage of his new city since coming over from the Dallas Stars in the expansion draft. From dining at different restaurants to catching the latest show to go-karting in the desert to hiking and biking, the 27-year-old forward has gotten out to experience much of what Vegas and its surrounding areas have to offer.

“The opportunities are almost endless around here,” Eakin said. “I don’t think you can do them all in one season.”

It’s clear that the love affair between the community and team didn’t take long to get off the ground, and that support has paid off with this fairy tale of a season.

“It’s a lot of fun and there’s a lot of recognition in the community right now,” said Eakin. “Guys are going out and you see the signs and Vegas Golden Knights flags flying in the wind attached to cars. It’s pretty special. 

“The community’s happy. The community’s excited. The community’s passionate about it and it translates into us playing for them, playing hard and having fun with it.”

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Guide

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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.

Capitals vs. Golden Knights: Your guide to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final

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HOW THEY GOT HERE

Capitals (49-26-7, 105 pts., Metropolitan Division title)
1st Round: Beat Columbus Blue Jackets in six games
2nd Round: Beat Pittsburgh Penguins in six games
Eastern Conference Final: Beat Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games

Golden Knights (51-24-7, 109 pts., Pacific Division title)
1st Round: Beat Los Angeles Kings in four games
2nd Round: Beat San Jose Sharks in six games
Western Conference Final: Beat Winnipeg Jets in five games

SCHEDULE
Game 1 Monday, May 28 – Golden Knights 6, Capitals 4
Game 2 Wednesday, May 30 – Capitals 3, Golden Knights 2
Game 3 Saturday, June 2 – Capitals 3, Golden Knights 1
Game 4 Monday, June 4 – Capitals 6, Golden Knights 2
Game 5 Thursday, June 7 – Capitals 4, Golden Knights 3 (Capitals win series 4-1)

PLAYOFF HISTORY

Capitals: 28 times in the playoffs, 1 Stanley Cup Final appearance
Golden Knights: Inaugural season

CONNECTIONS

Thirteen members of this Capitals playoff team were drafted by Vegas Golden Knights manager George McPhee during his 17-year tenure in Washington. Forward Jay Beagle was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2008 by McPhee.

Golden Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt played four seasons in Washington after being signed as an undrafted free agent in 2013. He was selected in last June’s expansion draft after the Capitals left him exposed. Vegas forward Cody Eakin was drafted by McPhee in 2009 and played only 30 games with the Capitals before being traded to Dallas in 2012.

McPhee and Capitals GM Brian MacLellan were teammates with the Guelph Holody Platers in the Ontario Junior A Hockey League in 1977-78. They would later play four seasons together at Bowling Green University and reunited for one season with the New York Rangers in 1985-86.

MacLellan and McPhee would become co-workers once their hockey careers ended. In 2004, MacLellan was hired by the Capitals and worked as a pro scout, director of player personnel and as an assistant GM to McPhee.

VEGAS PRE-GAME SHOW BREAK

What Washington D.C. symbol will the knight battle in the Cup Final?

[How Golden Knights were built | How Capitals were built]

CUP FINAL EXPERIENCE

Only Marc-Andre Fleury, James Neal and Brooks Orpik have played this far into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Fleury won three rings with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009 (along with Orpik), 2016 and 2017. Neal, who was with the Nashville Predators last season, was on the losing end of the 2016 Final against Fleury’s Penguins.

TROPHY SUPERSTITION

Hockey players are superstitious and some captains have refused to touch the Prince of Wales Trophy and the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl for fear of bad luck. Others had no problem picking it up. Both Alex Ovechkin and Deryk Engelland lifted up their respective conference trophies, thus throwing the supposed jinx out of the window.

CONN SMYTHE UPDATE

The NHL’s playoff MVP award factors in all four rounds, not just the Final. Through three rounds, here’s who we have as the top five:

1. Marc-Andre Fleury, Golden Knights (.947 save percentage, 1.68 goals against average 4 shutouts)
2. Alex Ovechkin, Capitals (12 goals, 22 points)
3. Braden Holtby, Capitals (.923 save percentage, 2.04 goals against average, 2 shutouts)
4. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Capitals (11 goals, 24 points)
5. Jonathan Marchessault, Golden Knights (8 goals, 18 points)

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
• Who has the better forwards?
Who has better defense?
Who has better goaltending?
• Who has better special teams?
Who has better coaching?

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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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.

Golden Knights had no answer for Capitals during ‘unacceptable’ Game 3 loss

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WASHINGTON — The collective message coming out of the Vegas Golden Knights’ dressing room following their 3-1 loss to the Washington Capitals in Game 3 of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final was the need to be better. The aggressive, speedy, chance-creating team we’ve seen all season was nowhere to be found inside Capital One Arena Saturday night.

Vegas generated only 22 shots on Braden Holtby, who if not for a third period brain cramp, would have likely recorded his third shutout of the playoffs. While Marc-Andre Fleury was keeping his team in the game with a number of highlight-reel stops, Holtby’s night wasn’t as busy with the Golden Knights failing to get to his net and create any sort of traffic.

Deryk Engelland summed it up saying there was a lack of chaos in front of the Washington net.

(Via Natural Stat Trick)

The Golden Knights were giving pucks away all night and had issues getting extending zone time with too many one-and-done zone entries. They were slow and were unable to transition successfully like they’ve done so many nights before.

“I think we’re a little late to pucks, late to forecheck,” said forward Alex Tuch. “We’re not forechecking as a five-man unit. We’ve just got to fix it.”

“For us, it’s unacceptable,” said forward James Neal.

In keeping Vegas’ offense at bay, the Capitals blocked 26 shots and clogged passing lanes, limiting any attempts at generating scoring chances. That kind of containment forced the Golden Knights off their game and ended up creating turnovers.

“We’ve got to be patient. Maybe make a quicker play, shoot before they get down, don’t force pucks,” Tuch said. “That’s what they were making us do. We were forcing pucks. We were forcing plays. Soon as we knew they were blocking shots, we got too cute, turned the puck over and had odd-man rushes against. We’ve just got to do straight lines and don’t overcomplicate things.”

Shea Theodore had a night to forget with a two turnovers (one thanks to a broken stick) that led to Washington goals. But the Game 3 loss can’t be pinned on just one player. Outside of Fleury, it was a poor effort collectively. The Capitals are seemingly getting better as the series moves along while the Golden Knights are regressing in areas. Every game in the Stanley Cup Final is a must-win game and the pressure to win Game 4 on Monday for Vegas just increased.

“When we play the right way, we deserve to win,” said forward Cody Eakin. “Tonight, we didn’t.”

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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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.

‘Save of the Playoffs’ spotlights Holtby’s tremendous Game 2

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Great players can be memorable even without a signature moment … but it doesn’t hurt to stack up a few of them, anyway.

After a tough outing in Game 1, Braden Holtby was a rock for the Washington Capitals in Game 2, stopping 37 out of 39 shots to anchor a 3-2 win against the Vegas Golden Knights. That meant making 10 shorthanded saves, with many of those stops came as the Golden Knights were pressing for a tie during a lengthy 5-on-3 opportunity.

Once again, Holtby and the Capitals proved their resiliency in tying this series 1-1.

Over the long haul, many of us will forget many of the details of that game, including Holtby’s overall performance. Few will forget the ridiculous save Holtby made on Alex Tuch with about two minutes remaining in Game 2, however.

There were Dominik Hasek comparisons. You could call it his version of Marc-Andre Fleury sprawling to stop Nicklas Lidstrom as the Penguin won their first Stanley Cup of the Sidney Crosby Era, although that save does have the edge when you weight for stakes.

Either way, you can expect that save to live on in highlight reels for years to come. Sorry, Alex Tuch.

Alex Ovechkin was all of us reacting to that save, honestly.

Holtby spoke about some of the odd bounces so far during the 2018 Stanley Cup Final, and explained his save as the puck “hitting” him.

“It was a strange play because these boards have been really true. It was kind of one of things we’ve been trying to get it up on the glass and on the rim because goalies usually stay in the net, but Marc-Andre’s been coming out a lot to get those because [the boards have] been so true,” Holtby said. “One bounces weird at that time of the game, [Cody Eakin] makes a great play to pass it over. I was just trying to get something there, trying to seal where I thought someone would shoot that and luckily it hit me.”

For more on Washington’s win, click here.

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

Golden Knights haven’t been afraid of tough roster decisions

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The perception of the Vegas Golden Knights roster today compared to when it was first assembled 11 months ago is, to say the least, very, very, very different. Heading into the season the opinion of this team when looking at it on paper was that it was going to be awful. Today, there’s a lot of strong opinions about how the expansion draft was unfair and how 30 other teams around the league don’t know what they’re doing and made a lot of really bad decisions. In hindsight, there is a lot of truth to the latter point because quite a few teams did, in fact, blow it.

There is also the fact that the roster has changed quite a bit from the beginning of the year, not only in terms of the players that are on it, but also in the way they have been used.

One of the big challenges that Vegas and its coaching staff faced this season was having a collection of players thrown together from all over the league, several of whom had little track record in the NHL or had never really had an opportunity to play larger roles. There was a ton of mystery and a lot of tinkering that had to be done to find the right combinations that would work.

A lot of the players that we thought might be key players, or looked like they might be key players, turned out to be anything but, and looking at how players were used early in the season as opposed to now it is clear that not even the Golden Knights knew entirely what they had in a lot of cases.

[Related: Don’t blame expansion draft rules for Vegas’ success, blame your GM]

Remember back in the offseason when Vadim Shipachyov signed a two-year, $9 million contract with the team to come over from Russia and was supposed to be one of their top players? That quickly fell apart and led to a rather bizarre — and seemingly messy — split between the two sides.

William Karlsson ended up being a 43-goal scorer this season and the biggest individual surprise of any player in the league. During the first month of the season he was fifth on the team in terms of average ice-time per game logging just a little more than 17 minutes per game. The now dominant and seemingly unstoppable line of Karlsson, Reilly Smith, and Jon Marchessault played a grand total of 39 seconds together through the first five games of the season (at which point Marchessault was sidelined with an injury for a few games) and didn’t really become a thing until the second month of the season.

The forward that Vegas leaned on the most in the first month of the season? Well that would be Cody Eakin, of course, as they played him nearly 20 minutes per night. He now plays around 14 minutes per night in the playoffs.

Here is a breakdown of Vegas’ ice-time distribution among forwards in the first month of the season compared to the last month of the season and then in the playoffs.

I excluded players that played less than four games in each time-frame.

The big changes are obviously Eakin going from the top forward down to a third-liner, while the Karlsson-Smith-Marchessault trio became the go-to group. But there are also significant increases for Haula (an extra two minutes per game) and Tuch (three minutes), while Perron saw his ice-tim decrease a bit.

Meanwhile, on defense…

From the very beginning Vegas seemed to know what it had in Schmidt and has leaned on him to be their top defender, a role that he has excelled in.

Deryk Engelland has also, quite shockingly, been one of their top defenders after completely reinventing himself as a player this year.

But in the first month of the season they were playing Luca Sbisa and Brad Hunt nearly 20 minutes per night, while top prospect Shea Theodore was playing in the American Hockey League and not even on the roster. Neither Sbisa or Hunt are significant players on the team now.

Jason Garrison, a veteran that played nearly 19 minutes a night over 70 games a season ago for the Lightning (and also opened the season as Vegas’ highest-paid defenseman) also saw some significant ice-time to start the year. But he was quickly jettisoned to the minor leagues and placed on waivers.

Colin Miller, who ended up leading all of their defenders in scoring, was at the bottom of the usage in the first month of the season.

In the end it’s been a fascinating evolution to watch unfold.

The player that was supposed to be the best forward (Shipachyov) ended up being, quite literally, nothing for them.

The highest paid forwards on the roster are David Clarkson and Tatar.

Clarkson has never — and will never — play a game for the team and is only a part of the organization because Vegas was willing to take his contract, along with Karlsson and a first-round draft pick, in exchange for not taking Josh Anderson or Columbus’ backup goalie in the expansion draft.

Tatar was their big trade deadline acquisition and has been relegated to the press box for most of the playoffs while their other trade deadline pickup, Ryan Reaves, who was never expected to make any sort of an impact, has scored two huge goals.

Their highest paid defenders at the start of the year were Garrison and Clayton Stoner. Garrison played eight games before being waived and relegated to the minor leagues while Stoner never played a single game.

Nothing about this Vegas season has gone as planned or as was expected, and nobody saw this team being as good as it is. Including them.

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.