LAS VEGAS – Five years ago, freshly signed by the Vegas Golden Knights as a free agent out of college, Zach Whitecloud’s experience during his new team’s run to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final was as an apprentice.
He was one of the “black aces,” the surplus skaters — usually high draft picks or prospects teams think may one day play for them at the National Hockey League level — who practise separately from the main group but are kept near enough to watch and learn.
“I was able to kind of be around but not be around and see how things work,” Whitecloud, 26, explained Saturday night. “See what the grind is like, see how guys take care of themselves and just kind of see the atmosphere and be in the building and watch. All of those little experiences kind of go into developing as a player and getting ready for times like this.”
Times like the Golden Knights’ second Stanley Cup Final, which opened Saturday with a sturdy 5-2 win against the Florida Panthers.
Times like scoring the winning goal, which Whitecloud did at 6:59 of the third period when he broke a 2-2 tie by wristing a screened shot from distance past Florida goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.
Times like the post-game press conference when Whitecloud, in his shining moment, accidentally knocked the microphone off the table to the amusement of more experienced and media-chill teammate Mark Stone.
Zach Whitecloud, the undrafted, third-pairing defenceman who grew up in the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation west of Brandon, Man., was more than around. He was at the centre of the spotlight.
The Golden Knights are three wins away from actually winning a Stanley Cup, just six seasons after entering the NHL and obliterating preconceptions about expansion teams.
Maybe Vegas gets these three wins in the next couple of weeks, or maybe they don’t. But teams that win Stanley Cups get winning goals from guys like Whitecloud, who has 15 NHL goals to his name over the last three seasons since graduating to the Knights from their farm team.
They get saves like the stunning, paddle-down stop Adin Hill, essentially the fourth goalie on the Knights’ organizational depth chart, made early in the second period to rob Nick Cousins. The second-best save of the game was Vegas defenceman Alex Pietrangelo deflecting Cousins’ rebound attempt over what was by then an open net.
They get plays like the one Stone made in the third period to knock down Matthew Tkachuk’s high pass across the Florida zone and sling a shot into the top corner to make it 4-2 at 13:41.
And they have the discipline the Knights showed late in the game when Tkachuk, one-upping his earlier contribution, took a double roughing minor and 10-minute misconduct for throwing jabs at a variety of semi-occupied opponents during a post-whistle scrum.
“I mean, obviously, that’s part of their game,” Vegas centre Jack Eichel said. “As a group, they’ve done a good job of that in the playoffs. Obviously, they wouldn’t be here if they haven’t. So, I mean, you’ve just got to stick up for each other, stick together as a group. We know it’s going to be physical.”
“Their past here is they’ve been really physical,” Knights winger Jonathan Marchessault said. “We know it’s going to be. . . a big, physical game out there. And I think for our group, it doesn’t matter. We’re just trying to play the right way and be disciplined. And tonight we were able to be the better team again.
“There’s a lot of stakes involved, right? We’re playing for everybody’s dream, and I thought tonight we played pretty well. We played our composed game and we didn’t get too heated there like they did at the end. And I think that’s winning hockey for our group.”
Even possessing a brawny lineup of players with the size and disposition to handle themselves physically, the Knights were easily the league’s most disciplined team during the regular season, shorthanded only 195 times in 82 games.
Eating a punch in a scrum isn’t going to beat the Golden Knights, but putting the opposition on the power play might.
“It’s that time of the year,” Cassidy said of his players’ restraint late in the game. “I think as the series goes on, there’s opportunity to be physical and sort of get squared away within the rules so to speak. I think tonight was a good example of that from our guys. We’ve been that way all year. We’re not a very highly penalized team.”
But they are an extremely good one. A great story, too, as the league’s second-youngest franchise.
Six players remain from the expansion “misfits” whom Whitecloud watched march all the way to the Cup Final in Vegas’ inaugural season. They’re a far better team now, but three of the original players scored on Saturday: Marchessault, Shea Theodore and Reilly Smith.
“I think this organization has set out a goal from Day 1 to win,” Stone, who arrived in Year 2, told reporters. “Those guys have been the driving force since Day 1. I think those guys — I don’t know if they’re really looking back on that — but they just want to win, right?”
More than anything. And now, as back then, they have something special going.