EDMONTON — Up was down and down was up last night in Edmonton, as it has been all season for these Vegas Golden Knights.
How much money could you have won back in October if you’d have wagered that, in this April 5, Game 81 meeting between the Stanley Cup-favoured Edmonton Oilers and the tomato can expansion Golden Knights, that the latter would be the team prepping for the playoffs, and the former sending players to the world championships?
“Five months ago we weren’t talking about playoffs, and today we have an X and a Y beside our name,” marvelled affable Golden Knights head coach Gerard Gallant. “After the first 10 games (Vegas went 8-2-0), people said the same thing: ‘Ah, they’re going to fall.’ And don’t get me wrong. I said the same thing too! ‘When’s it going to happen?’ And it didn’t happen.”
It is as absurd for Edmonton as it is awesome for Vegas.
The teams met for the final time Thursday in Edmonton, with the Oilers coming way with a 4-3 victory.
Vegas, the best expansion club any North American professional sports league has ever seen will roll through Calgary on Saturday, then return home to host Round 1 of the playoffs. It is just another remarkable milestone in a Disney-esque season that has been full of them.
“That first road trip, we were 1-4-1,” said defenceman Deryk Engelland, the Las Vegas resident whose touching opening night address after the Vegas hotel massacre cemented the bond between fan and team. “It’s tough losing, but we thought we were in those games for the most part. We won the first (11 of 13 games) at home, but we never really got too high. Not in over our heads.”
As the pudding brewed, the proof rose into sight. Long before the rest of the league started to take this team seriously, the people who were around it every day began to see a legit, competitive club here.
“For me, it was a game in Nashville and a game in Dallas, on back-to-back nights (on Dec. 8 and 9),” said Gallant. “We were playing good, but those two teams were playing unbelievable hockey at that time. We went in there, outplayed Nashville and won a hockey game. The next night we went into Dallas, outplayed Dallas, and won a hockey game.
“That was the time when the guys said, ‘You know what? We’ve got a real good hockey team.’ When you beat those teams on the road? We were pretty excited.”
Now, with one meaningless game left for the Pacific Division regular season champs, the next challenge awaits. Will it be any different when the opposition isn’t simply coming through Vegas for a night, but is actually game-planning against Vegas for a two-week series?
What will happen when an opponent sends its best checker after William Karlsson every night, and pour over the video to exploit whatever weakness Marc-Andre Fleury might have. Do weaknesses in the Golden Knights’ game that can survive 60 minutes of pressure, hemorrhage over the course of a seven-game series?
“I don’t think too many guys have playoff experience. We have a lot of new (to the playoffs) guys here,” began Fleury, who has by far the highest pedigree of playoff experience here due to his days in Pittsburgh. “Every play matters. Intensity is up, both teams are skating harder, hitting more. More blocked shots …
“The little things that make the difference,” he said. “We don’t have a Crosby or a Malkin. Everybody has to contribute for us to have success.”
The coach’s job is to simply keep this unlikely ball rolling. The last thing Gallant plans is to mess with the recipe for success this expansion club has authored thus far.
“We all know the intensity goes up five per cent, and everyone is excited to play (in the post-season),” Gallant said. “But I don’t want our team to change one bit. We’re a fast, quick team that moves the puck real well. We know the intensity goes up, but let’s play our game.”
The final word goes to Engelland, a cast-off like all of these players, who has found a home in the town where he met his wife and his kids were born.
“Look back on the season. It’s been a storybook season — from the tragedy that happened, right from then on,” he said. “Playoffs are a whole other ballgame. We’ve played 82 games to get here. It’s another season now.”
They can only hope that this one is as good as the last.