LAS VEGAS — The final game before a well-deserved bye week for both the Rangers and the expansion Golden Knights on Sunday was a dream conjured by schedule-makers who couldn’t possibly have imagined the way the first half of the regular season has played out.
The buzz was evident in town, as dozens of fans in Rangers jerseys wandered through the Vegas strip and casinos before heading to a sold-out T-Mobile Arena for the first time.
To be sure, the teams got to this point on different, winding roads.
The first 12 games were a struggle for the Rangers, who went 3-7-2. The media and fans put coach Alain Vigneault under a microscope and wondered if a change should be made behind the bench if the downward spiral continued. It didn’t, things turned around, and the Rangers were in an Eastern Conference playoff position on Saturday.
About 2,500 miles to the west, where expectations were not as high, the Golden Knights charged out of the gate. Entering Sunday night’s game, they were in second place in the NHL and were a league-best 17-2-1 at home.
“In the beginning, we had a bunch of home games,” Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said Sunday. “The first two were on the road, and we finished the trip 2-0, so that was a good confidence-builder. Then we won seven of eight at home, so the guys built a little more confidence off that. But probably a couple weeks after that, we went on a six-game road trip, and I think we went 1-4-1. Then when we came home, we got hot again.
“So I think it was probably after about a good month and a half that we felt we had a really good team and we can play with anybody if we play our game.”
Gallant said the home crowd has provided great backing for the newcomers, noting that the noise level, in his mind, could be compared only to old Chicago Stadium.
Defenseman Deryk Engelland, a Calgary native who had lived here for 14 years before coming back from Pittsburgh in the expansion draft, said he isn’t surprised by the way the area has embraced the Knights.
“No, actually,” he said, “playing here in the East Coast [Hockey League], I think we averaged 5,500 fans, and for the East Coast, that was pretty good the first few years I was here. There’s a lot of people from different hockey states and different countries, and that helps grow it even more. And a lot of people just got tickets to come to their first game and got hooked. I’ve heard a lot of that.”
Vigneault, who was an assistant coach for the expansion Ottawa Senators, made this comparison: “I can tell you from my first experience with an expansion team back in ’92-93, the [expansion] rules were a lot different, so the quality of their players is different. But give this organization full credit.”
On the ice Sunday, there was another twist: Henrik Lundqvist, whose 38 saves through overtime and three more in a shootout that ended in a 2-1 victory over the Coyotes in Arizona on Saturday, did not start. Ondrej Pavelec, who was 2-0-1 with a 1.26 GAA and a .966 save percentage in his last three starts, was in net for the Rangers.
Although Lundqvist would have four or five days to rest, the move was planned, Vigneault said. Pavelec, who stopped all 30 shots in regulation and two shots in a shootout on Dec. 27 against Washington for a shutout in his last start, knew since the beginning of the week that this would be another opportunity.
“He’s playing well,” Vigneault said. “We’ve got two good goaltenders and feel it’s the right thing to do.”