The Vegas Golden Knights remain in first place in the Western Conference just two days out from the NHL All-Star break and if they win their game in hand on the Tampa Bay Lightning they’ll find themselves alone atop the league standings.
There are many contributing factors to the Golden Knights’ historic first season, one of which is the team’s head coach Gerard Gallant. Dallas Stars bench boss Ken Hitchcock has great admiration for his peer and says it would be an easy choice to give Gallant the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year.
Hitchcock, who also gave Jared Bednar props for turning the Colorado Avalanche around, is the third-winningest coach in NHL history and knows a thing or two about what it takes to succeed in the league.
“He’s done an amazing job,” Hitchcock said of Gallant during an appearance on Prime Time Sports Wednesday. “Girard, he did a great job in cultivating the cause and any time you can have a cause you can fight for every day that’s right out in front of you, it’s visual, it’s verbal, it’s like gold.
“We always look for it and the great coaches of the world like [Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs] and [former longtime Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson] they always found a cause and Gerard had it and he’s really made great strides in building that team with that message right out in front of it.”
The Golden Knights were essentially a group of misfits and castaways following June’s expansion draft, so players have been saying all season the team plays with a chip on its collective shoulder. The deadly mass shooting in Las Vegas mere days before the start of the season also resulted in the team forming a close bond with one another and the city they play for. As of Wednesday, Vegas had the best home record in the league at 19-2-2.
“You talk about home-ice advantage, that team has home-ice advantage,” Hitchcock said. “Playing in that building is like trying to play hockey in a rock concert. It is so loud and so emotional and there’s so much going on. It’s just a great experience but it’s really loud. It is loud on the bench. I feel like every speaker is pointed at our bench.”
Golden Knights general manager George McPhee said this season has been some of the most fun he’s ever had in his hockey career.
“It’s hard to fathom what’s happened. The love affair with this team [and the city] is unlike anything I’ve seen in any sport,” McPhee told Prime Time Sports only a few minutes after Hitchcock joined the show.
Hitchcock and the Stars have faced Vegas three times this season, winning once and losing twice. The first meeting was in Dallas in the season opener that featured Vegas winning 2-1 after a dramatic third-period comeback.
“It was a very emotional game for both teams, but you could see a lot of things, how dangerous they were offensively and that’s what they do. They maybe give up chances, but they got a lot of finish up front and a lot of hockey sense up front and they make you pay for making mistakes,” Hitchcock said.
At the beginning of the season it would’ve been almost unfathomable that an expansion team would be in first place at any point in the second half of the season, but Hitchcock said it’s not entirely shocking based on the way the team plays and its personnel.
“When we looked at the lineup that was going to play, a lot of us looked at it in early September. That’s when they had 12, 13 defencemen, six lines, and we looked at that and we honestly felt that was an 85- to 90-point team,” Hitchcock explained. “One of the things that was there was they had a really high degree of hockey sense in that group and they had 25 guys who had really top end hockey sense. You knew they were going to be competitive as heck every night. The risk was, could you take third line players and make them second line players? And obviously that’s where they’ve hit the home run.”
Hitchcock’s Stars won’t see the Golden Knights again until 2018-19 unless the two teams meet in the playoffs. While it would appear highly unlikely at this point that Vegas would collapse and miss the post-season, the Stars still have some work to do to maintain the wild-card spot they currently have and continue rising up the standings. Hitchcock added he hopes to win at least 20 of the final 33 regular-season games because “it’s going to take 100 points to get into the playoffs. It’s unbelievable but that’s what it’s going to take.”