DALLAS — James Neal simply wanted to give the people of Las Vegas a reason to smile.
Chances are he did.
Neal scored twice in the third period, rallying the Golden Knights to a 2-1 victory over the Dallas Stars on Friday night in the debut of the first major pro sports franchise in Las Vegas.
The expansion team was playing five days after the shooting that killed 58 people in Las Vegas, and the Dallas players honoured the desert city by forming a line alongside their Vegas counterparts before the national anthem.
With the video board reading "Viva Las Vegas" above the players, the public address announcer said "Dallas stands with Vegas and those affected by the horrifying tragedy."
"Being a new team, we have a lot of new fans and a lot of people affected by what happened," Neal said. "Hopefully they tuned in tonight and we could put a smile on their face, because like you said we’re playing for our city and it’s going to be a lot of fun this year."
Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 45 of 46 shots to help the Golden Knights become the first expansion team to open with a victory since the Ottawa Senators topped Montreal 5-3 on Oct. 8, 1992. Vegas is the first NHL expansion team since the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets in 2000.
"We can’t undo what happened, and we’ll do our best, we’ll work as hard as we can to make the city proud of us," said Fleury, a three-time Stanley Cup winner in Pittsburgh who lost his job during the playoffs last season and was left unprotected for the expansion draft.
The Golden Knights also spoiled coach Ken Hitchcock’s return to Dallas 18 years after he directed the franchise’s only Stanley Cup title. He was fired during the 2001-02 season, the only one in a span of 11 that the Stars missed the playoffs.
Both of Neal’s goals came against Kari Lehtonen after Ben Bishop left after taking a puck to the mask. Bishop, who skated off holding a towel to his face, had stopped all 19 shots in his Dallas debut after coming over in a trade with Los Angeles and signing a long-term contract.
Hitchcock said he was evaluated for a concussion and would have to be cleared to be available on the second night of a back-to-back in St. Louis on Saturday night.
"We have to find a way as a group to not be distracted, and keep our foot on the pedal and keep our focus razor-sharp for 60 minutes," Hitchcock said. "It’s not just how good goalie was or frustration by not scoring. There’s a lot of things that go into not being distracted."
A former Dallas player and expected to be a top offensive threat for the Golden Knights, Neal beat a screened Lehtonen between the legs midway through the third period on a delayed penalty for the franchise’s first goal and a 1-1 tie. Nate Schmidt and Luca Sbisa got the first assists.
The go-ahead goal came in transition when Neal lifted the puck over Lehtonen from his knees with 2:44 remaining. Lehtonen, who stopped nine of 11 shots, shared the job with Antti Niemi the past two seasons, and the move for Bishop left him as the clear backup.
"I don’t think it’s on the goaltending," Hitchcock said. "We made two big errors. Both ended up in the net."
Tyler Seguin opened the scoring late in the second period when he redirected a pass from Devin Shore past Fleury, who made several big stop in the third period and got a break when Alexander Radulov’s shot deflected off a Vegas teammate with Fleury sprawled on the ice.
The Stars were marking some milestones as well, celebrating 25 seasons since moving from Minnesota with plenty of highlights while three-time golf major winner Jordan Spieth and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback-turned-broadcaster Tony Romo watched from a suite.
The biggest pregame roar came when Hitchcock was introduced, right after a highlight reel that included Brett Hull’s Stanley Cup-winning goal when Hitchcock was behind the bench in 1999.
Technically, it’s the 24th season for the Dallas Stars because of the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season. They moved from Minnesota for the 1993-94 season.
NOTES: The first penalty in Vegas franchise history was a roughing call against Jonathan Marchessault about midway through the first period. … Fleury had the first save just seven seconds in when John Klingberg sent the puck all the way down from past centre ice. … Hitchcock was denied a chance to tie Al Arbour for third on the career coaching victories list. Hitchcock has 781.
Golden Knights: At Arizona on Saturday night.
Stars: Hitchcock’s return to St. Louis on Saturday night.