The Morning After: Erik Haula leaves mark in return to T-Mobile Arena

The former Golden Knights forward played his first game at Vegas since being traded this summer, and made a major difference in the game.

For what was a long-anticipated evening — watching his video tribute, acknowledging the crowd’s applause, and looking as emotional as one can be — it was mostly a quiet night for Erik Haula in his return to Las Vegas.

But when the biggest moment of the night happened, Haula came alive for his new team.

“Honestly, I hadn’t played that much,” Haula said after playing 12:13 on Saturday, “then suddenly [rookie defenseman Zach] Whitecloud hit me in the face and it woke me up.”

That whack to the face by way of Whitecloud’s stick gave the Carolina Hurricanes a four-minute power-play that came seconds after the Hurricanes trimmed the Vegas Golden Knights’ lead to 3-2 early in the third period. It was almost for naught when Chandler Stephenson scored a shorthanded goal 12 seconds into said power play to put Vegas up 4-2.

Those cheers to Haula two hours prior turned to boos and utter shock. Haula got behind the Vegas defense, walked in on Marc-Andre Fleury and beat him five-hole at 4:16 of the third, cutting the lead to 4-3.

“That kind of got us back on our feet,” said Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour. “The rest of the game, I thought we were the better team. Obviously, it was exciting.”

If I may be allowed these Hurricane puns at this time, Haula’s goal was the calm before the storm that set Carolina’s comeback into motion. The Canes scored twice more in the third and had to survive a Vegas run late with Cody Eakin’s game-tying goal with 3:53 to go in regulation, but the Golden Knights were already done in thanks to the effort of their former teammate.

Vegas lost 6-5 in a shootout in a game that shouldn’t have ended in that capacity, but the former Vegas forward did not hold back a smile afterward.

“Games are a little crazy sometimes. Little sparks can get a team going,” Haula said. “That third there, I don’t know what happened. We were a different team. Got a couple of goals, gave it back, but got the shootout win.”

Haula finished with a goal and an assist that ended a 10-game point-less drought.

To say the past year hasn’t been tumultuous for Haula would be an understatement.

The last time Haula played at T-Mobile Arena was Nov. 3, 2018 ... against the Hurricanes.

He had two assists in the home victory.

Three days later, he laid on the ice at Scotiabank Arena, writhing in pain wondering if his NHL career was over.

The Golden Knights made the Stanley Cup Playoffs without him. If Vegas reached the second round, Haula would have been 7-10 days away from practicing, as then-general manager George McPhee said following the Game 7 loss to San Jose. He would have been the gamechanger for a Vegas offense that was clicking at the right time.

Instead, the Golden Knights never got that chance, nor did they want to bank on what he could be off such an injury. Vegas traded Haula to Carolina on June 26 for Nicolas Roy and a fifth-round pick. It was a move that relieved the Golden Knights of cap space and rid them of a cautious what-if scenario.

Three days later, Haula got married. He and his now-wife Kristen had to celebrate their marriage with Haula’s now-former teammates — some of the same brothers he played with in the Stanley Cup Final two years ago — and uproot his new family from Las Vegas to Raleigh.

“They were in a situation where something had to happen. Our whole team knew it [was coming], [and] it was me,” Haula said. “Timing wasn’t great. It was a couple of days before my wedding, and it threw us through a loop. It took a little bit, but you move on.”

It was a new start for Haula, but there might not have been a better situation for him to come to. The 28-year-old forward, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, was brought to a Carolina team that made a shocking trip to the Eastern Conference Final last season. If he thrives as a middle-six forward on a young, contending team, it’s a home run. If he struggles, it’s a risk Carolina had no problem taking.

So far, results are mixed. Haula had a strong start to 2019, scoring eight goals in 16 games. But the knee continued to nag, forcing him to miss 15 games. Haula has 10 points in his past 19 games, but again, there was that stretch where he didn’t score. Add in the fact he was a healthy scratch before Carolina’s final game before the All-Star break, and there’s a lot to digest there.

“I had a lot on my mind; I sat out the whole year and had a lot to focus on,” Haula said. “There’s a lot of work ahead of me still. I’m proud of where I got myself to, from where I was, and every night I’m trying to play my best.”

The popular Green Day song “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” echoed throughout T-Mobile Arena with 12:52 remaining in the first period. Haula’s memories in a Golden Knights sweater brought the crowd to its feet, showering the former 29-goal scorer with thunderous applause and a standing ovation.

Perhaps the “Good Riddance” part wasn’t the way to go, but the admiration from those in attendance was evident. There’s still a contingent that would take Haula back in a heartbeat, and maybe there’s the chance Haula would re-sign with Vegas this summer if the numbers add up.

On this night — when the Golden Knights blew a two-goal lead in a game they shouldn’t have lost — Haula wasn’t thinking of getting the ‘last laugh,’ but he’d be lying if he wasn’t happy to be the main reason why his new team defeated his former team.

“The reception from the fans, obviously a huge thank you to the Golden Knights making me feel welcome,” Haula said. “This will always hold a special place in my heart.”