LAS VEGAS — For all the firsts the Vegas Golden Knights have stockpiled this season, Friday night was another one — outside the first double overtime game, first 50-shot game, among other things.
Friday night was the first time the Golden Knights played a game where they had everything to lose.
For the past six months, the Golden Knights have been playing with house money. And, as scripture reminds us, the house always wins. There were no expectations for Vegas to win its first three games in franchise history; none when they started 8-1-0 with Marc-Andre Fleury absent for half of that stretch; none when Vegas climbed to first place in the Pacific Division by Thanksgiving with two backup goalies. Literally every accomplishment has been met with no pressure.
It was always the opponent coming into T-Mobile Arena that felt the pressure, felt the need to send a message to Vegas and derail the best story in professional sports. Vegas doesn’t know pressure.
That first such moment came Friday, in Game 2 of their first round series against the Los Angeles Kings.
And the Golden Knights delivered.
Before we dive into that, let’s talk about that historic goal.
Thoughts on the final play
As Erik Haula skated down the right side, James Neal flanked in the middle and Alex Tuch to his left, there’s a lot going on in that sequence — it’s more mental than anything.
There’s the crowd — a team record 18,588 that was probably delirious at this point. There has never been a crowd in this building that’s felt more anxious. If tension could be cut with a knife, it would take a saw to do it. Fans were still loud, towels waiving vigorously with the crowd holding on to every inch of puck movement.
It’s Stanley Cup Playoff hockey. The Golden Knights have played all season to get these hold-on-to-your-butts moments. It’s what they wanted.
“You’ve just got to believe in each other and in yourself,” Golden Knights forward Alex Tuch said. “We’ve worked really hard to get to this point and I don’t think, at any time, we had any doubt in our minds that we were going to lose this game.”
Speaking of Tuch, who scored his first Stanley Cup Playoff goal on Friday, he was vital in the final sequence. What was going through his mind as he joined the rush that sealed the deal?
“I was screaming for the puck,” Tuch said, laughing. “I was open on the side, but I guess Erik was open, too.”
As Haula takes the puck at the right circle off the pass from Neal, Haula (probably skating on attrition by this point) makes enough of a move to get the puck past the Great Wall that is Jonathan Quick for the 2-1 winner, followed by the most joyous celebration you may ever see from Haula.
“When you go to overtime, you try to play the same way,” Haula said after a record 95:23 game, the longest in Kings and Golden Knights history. “I thought we played a good 60-minute game. “We kept pressing and we kept talking more in the locker room that we don’t have to change much, but just clean it up a little bit and just keep playing the same way. Just go after a defenseman, make it really hard on them. I feel like we did a good job at that, wearing them down.”
Wear them down, they did. Hence why the Golden Knights are up 2-0 heading to Los Angeles.
Everything to lose
Cliche alert: Home-ice advantage is critical. When you’re one of the best home teams in the NHL at 29-10-2, that’s going to be pivotal for the Golden Knights.
They need to take care of games like this, no matter how it gets done.
The rest of this series is going to be pressure-filled for Vegas. The fact that the Golden Knights are taking a 2-0 series lead to Los Angeles after what transpired in Game 2 is mind-boggling.
The Kings played without Drew Doughty, arguably the best defenseman in the NHL, serving a one-game suspension for hitting William Carrier in the head. It’s simple to say the other team better win if the Kings don’t have Doughty. If Vegas loses Game 2 with Doughty in the press box, all momentum Vegas gained in Game 1 is dashed.
Then, there’s Jonathan Quick, who has been the human version of the Great Wall of China. I’m not discrediting Marc-Andre Fleury at all, who has also been outstanding. Quick has been out of this world. It takes a special kind of player to make 54 (that’s fifty-four) saves in a 1-1 game with the sands of the hourglass dropping ever so slowly. Fleury was great as well for the second straight game, making 29 saves for his 64th career playoff win.
But if Vegas doesn’t win — with the Kings not having Doughty, Quick playing like an alien and Los Angeles not having many scoring chances in the overtime periods — it’s a somber day for Golden Knights fans on Saturday.
“It was such a relief at the end,” Fleury said. “ I think Quick made a lot of good saves for them.”
This goalie duel is what we all expected. It’s two dams with no sign of breaking. Any crack in the wall is going to have to come by a giant sledgehammer. And even with the series going to L.A., the dams are still intact.
The Golden Knights haven’t felt pressure all year. The only pressure comes on themselves, knowing there’s plenty of chips on a lot of shoulders to perform. The in-game pressure is going to intensifyt, but the Golden Knights proved true the statement of, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” Patience prevailed in Vegas taking care of home-ice advantage.
“Our guys are confident,” Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant said on the one-year anniversary of him being named Vegas’ head coach. “They have been confident since probably about the 10-game mark of the season. They feel good about themselves they play hard, and they know when they compete and play a fast game they can have a chance to beat anybody at any given night.”
If Vegas lost this game, it would’ve been devastating. It didn’t. Now the Golden Knights have a chance to make it devastating for the Kings.