At one end of the strip of elbow-to-elbow neon surrounded by desert, the NHL and Bill Foley, the majority owner of the Golden Knights, took a gamble, bringing an expansion team to Las Vegas.
And defying the odds, it has paid off handsomely.
At the glittering new T-Mobile Arena on Park Avenue and Frank Sinatra Boulevard, which seats 17,500 for hockey, Sunday night’s game against the Rangers will close the first half of the team’s improbable inaugural season. The Knights will march in with a 28-10-2 record, second best in the league.
It is a remarkable storyline for professional sports.
Think back to the Golden Knights’ home opener on Oct. 10, when the city was still trying to heal nine days after the mass shooting that left 58 dead and more than 500 wounded.
The club honored the victims and first responders in a somber 20-minute pregame ceremony. Then the Golden Knights earned a 5-2 win over Arizona that seemed to spark a bond between this gathering of newcomers and a city whose last hockey team was the ECHL’s Wranglers, who ceased operations in January 2015.
That was just one hurdle. On the ice, because of injuries, the team went through five goaltenders early in the season and persevered. In fact, when the Knights lost to the Rangers, 6-4, at the Garden on Halloween night, fourth-string goalie Maxime Lagace was making his first NHL start.
Under coach Gerard Gallant, the Knights are among the top six in goals. They have the best home record in the league (17-2-1) and have produced winning streaks of eight games and five games (twice) along with a six-game stretch at home. They are disciplined, with the second-lowest number of penalty minutes per game at 7.3, and don’t settle for ties: They are 8-0-2 in overtime.
“I haven’t seen them much, but I have seen five or six of their games,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. “They’ve picked up a lot of players that can score goals. I think everybody is a little bit surprised that an expansion team is doing so well, but when you look at that team and how well they’ve been playing, it shouldn’t be a surprise. They deserve to be where they are.”
The groundwork was laid in 2016, when Foley and his investors forked over $500 million to the NHL for the rights and named longtime Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee to assemble a team with players deemed expendable by other NHL clubs, a team that few thought would be a playoff contender right away.
Now McPhee — after intricately plotting and dealing like the gang in Ocean’s Eleven — is the leading candidate for general manager of the year.
Observers figured that McPhee would swap players for prospects at the Feb. 26 trade deadline to build for the future. Now that is nowhere near as cut-and-dried.
“The plan going into this year was pretty simple: If we’re in the hunt, we’re going to try and stay in the hunt,” McPhee recently told Sportsnet’s Hockey Central. “If you’re not in the hunt, you do what teams that are not in the hunt do at the trading deadline. We’ll see where we are when we get there.
“We wanted to be competitive this year. We thought it was really important to the league. We thought it was important to the market — we wanted to give the market a chance. Can we be competitive and see how people respond here? Well, it has been pretty darn good here, and you don’t ever want to lose that. We’re trying to set a standard.”
The Knights already have. The Columbus Blue Jackets won only 28 games in their inaugural season of 2000-01 and didn’t reach the playoffs until their ninth year. The expansion Minnesota Wild won only 25 games that season but made the postseason in its third year.
The contributions are coming from everywhere.
The under-appreciated Jonathan Marchessault, who stands 5-9 and played five seasons in the AHL, hit the jackpot. He has 16 goals and 39 points and was rewarded last week with a six-year contract worth $30 million.
William Karlsson, 24, a former Blue Jacket, has 21 goals and leads the league in shooting percentage. Marc-Andre Fleury, a three-time Stanley Cup winner with Pittsburgh, is 8-2-1 with a 1.80 goals-against average. And in 14 games, rookie Malcolm Subban, the younger brother of Nashville defenseman P.K. Subban, has 11 wins and a 2.38 GAA.
James Neal (17 goals) and David Perron (31 points in 32 games) have been clutch. Erik Haula, made available by Minnesota, has 15 goals. Alex Tuch, 21, who played briefly with the Wild, has nine goals and 21 points, plus three shootout goals, and is seventh among rookies in shots. Reilly Smith, who played with three NHL teams, is 11-23-34.
On defense, former Capital Nate Schmidt has 17 assists and ex-Bruin Colin Miller has 21 points, which ranks in the top 25 among blueliners.
“They have a lot of great players,” Rangers defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. “And that’s top to bottom, that’s role players, that’s obviously the goaltending. So I think everyone here will tell you that we thought they were going to be a competitive team. For them to be doing as well as they are and exceeding those expectations, it’s special and it’s great to see.”
GOLDEN KNIGHTS’ TOP PLAYERS:
Marc-Andre Fleury, goalie: Three-time Cup winner with the Penguins, he was the Golden Knights’ first pick in the expansion draft. Injured earlier this season, he now has an 8-2-1 record in 11 games for the Knights with a 1.80 GAA.
James Neal, forward: Veteran was left unprotected by the Predators in the expansion draft, he has 17 goals for the Knights this season. Now in his 10th season, he scored 40 goals for the Penguins in the 2011-12 campaign.
Jonathan Marchessault, forward: He has thrived with Vegas after scoring 30 goals for the Panthers last season. He leads the Knights in scoring with 39 points (16 goals, 23 assists) and recently signed a 6-year, $30 million contract to avoid free agency this summer.
William Karlsson, forward: Drafted in the second-round by the Ducks in 2011, he had never scored more than nine goals in a season before this year. He entered Saturday with a team-high 21 goals for Vegas, including a hat trick on Dec. 31 in Toronto.
Colin Miller, defenseman: In just his third year in the NHL, he leads the Knights’ blueliners with five goals, 21 points and seven power-play points. Fifth-round pick by the Kings in 2012, he played 103 games the past two seasons with the Bruins.