Inaugural Golden Knights season buoyed by connection to Vegas

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LAS VEGAS – Unless you have been here and felt the connection between the expansion Vegas Golden Knights and their fans following the murder of 58 concert-goers on the Las Vegas Strip on Oct. 1, the powerful attachment is difficult to explain.

But Knights defencemen Luca Sbisa tried.

“We went into the hospitals to visit people (after the shooting),” Sbisa, who went from Vancouver to Vegas in last year’s expansion draft, told Sportsnet on Sunday. “A lot of them said: ‘I don’t know much about hockey, but you guys have got to do it for the city now.’ We played our first game a few days later, and when we started winning right away, everything just kind of took off.

“It was like: We’re all a part of this now.”

The National Hockey League has never had an expansion team like the Golden Knights and, no matter what people think about the equally favourable conditions that will be granted Seattle’s franchise next year, it probably will never have another.

A collection of players deemed expendable by the NHL’s 30 other teams, the Knights had the best home record in the league until it lost four straight games this month at T-Mobile Arena. But Vegas dumped the Calgary Flames 4-0 on Sunday to improve to 46-21-5 for the season and if it beats the Vancouver Canucks here Tuesday, the Knights will have 99 points with nine games remaining.

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No wonder general manager George McPhee tossed out his expansion playbook at the trade deadline last month and instead of leveraging good players on expiring contracts like James Neal and David Perron to acquire future assets, kept all his key pieces and paid a draft ransom – three picks including a 2018 first-rounder – to add Detroit Red Wing Tomas Tatar.

“We didn’t have the deadline that we probably would have had a year earlier,” McPhee said Monday. “So our plans changed, but it wasn’t a dramatic change – just a couple of players. No one could have predicted where we were going to be.

“After Oct. 1, the team was suddenly on a much higher platform. There was an obligation to help the city heal and move on. And that really made the bond between the team and the community that much stronger. It accelerated everything in terms of bringing the team and city together and unifying them in a way nothing else could do.

“Given the level of support we’ve had, there was no way we weren’t going to be all-in.”

You must remember, too, that McPhee was a first-year general manager when the Washington Capitals made the Stanley Cup Final in 1998. McPhee was 39 years old and had an excellent team. The Capitals fired him 16 years later; he never again made it past the second round of the playoffs.

McPhee, who turns 60 in July, has spent his entire adult life in pro hockey and understands as well as anyone how rare this thing is that the Golden Knights have going.

Next season, the team could have 75 points. But this spring, they could bring the Stanley Cup to Las Vegas. It’s unlikely, but possible.

The team is already doing things thought to be impossible. William Karlsson has 39 goals. The Knights’s leading scorer is Jonathan Marchessault, who has 66 points. Reilly Smith has 60. And a defence comprised of Colin Miller, Nate Schmidt, Brayden McNabb, Deryk Engelland, Shea Theodore and Sbisa, who is out until the playoffs with a hand injury, has played like one of the best in the NHL.

So, just as fans here are all-in on the Knights, so are the Knights all-in on themselves.

“I went to the Stanley Cup with the Canucks (as an assistant GM) in 1994, went with Washington in 1998,” McPhee said. “I thought sometime in the next three or four or five years, we’ll get back there and win one. And here it is 20 years later.”

Leipsic looking to stick it to former team

Until Feb. 26, Brendan Leipsic was part of the magic act here. He was a third-line forward on the Knights until McPhee, to open a roster spot and perhaps save a salary next season, traded Leipsic to the Canucks for minor-league defenceman Philip Holm.

Initially, Leipsic brought the Vegas karma to Vancouver, scoring for the Canucks like had struggled to do for the Knights.

The 23-year-old left winger amassed six points in his first four games. But the Boeser Effect – the loss of leading scorer and Rookie of the Year candidate Brock Boeser to a back injury on March 5 – has hurt Leipsic, who returns to Las Vegas without a point in his last five games.

Playing with top centre Bo Horvat, Leipsic had nine shot attempts and a career-high 21:12 of ice time in Vancouver’s 5-3 loss Saturday against the San Jose Sharks.

His final week as a Golden Knight was spent as a healthy scratch, and in 44 games for Vegas, Leipsic averaged only 11:55 of playing time under coach Gerard Gallant. His Canucks coach is his old junior coach, Travis Green.

Vancouver is Leipsic’s land of opportunity, which is why the five-foot-10 dynamo is thankful for his move to the Canucks even if it cost him the chance to be part of something special with the Golden Knights this spring.

“It’s about you playing in the NHL (and) you want to play where there’s the most opportunity,” Leipsic said. “I’ve got nothing but good things to say about Vegas. But at the end of the day, you want to have a long career and if this gives me the best chance of a successful career, so be it.”

Leipsic is averaging 18:21 of ice time in nine games with the Canucks. With two goals on 22 shots, his shooting percentage of 9.1 is more than triple his 2.9-per-cent scoring rate with the Knights.

“Any time you get traded, it means something,” Leipsic said. “Anytime you’re playing a former team, you’d like to stick it to them.”

No one has stuck it to the Knights yet.

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