The Vegas flu used to be considered one of the keys to the success of the Vegas Golden Knights. The theory was that teams visiting Las Vegas, where T-Mobile Arena sits on The Strip, would, uh, not feel well for some reason.
Well, here we are in the time of COVID-19, when teams are living in Secure Zones and playing in arenas without fans in the stands in Edmonton and Toronto and look who has the best record in the bubbles: the Golden Knights.
Vegas, playing all its games at Rogers Place in Edmonton, the hub city for the Western Conference, is 8-1-0 this postseason. The Golden Knights, the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, went 3-0-0 in the round-robin portion of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers and defeated the Chicago Blackhawks 4-1 in the Western Conference First Round, and now they have taken a 1-0 lead against the No. 5-seeded Vancouver Canucks in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
How do you explain that? Simple.
“I mean, this team is really good,” veteran analyst Pierre McGuire said with a laugh after listing some of Vegas’ strengths — physicality, defense, structure, depth — during the NBCSN broadcast of Game 1 on Sunday. And that was when the score was 1-0 in the first period. The final score was 5-0.
Game 2 of the best-of-7 series is Tuesday (9:45 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVAS).
In theory, no team should be at more of a disadvantage under the circumstances than the Golden Knights, because they have had a huge home-ice advantage.
The Golden Knights have gone 75-33-11 in the regular season at home, fifth in the NHL in points percentage (.676) since they entered the NHL as an expansion team in 2017-18.
They went 7-3 at home in the 2018 playoffs, when they went to the Stanley Cup Final and lost in five games to the Washington Capitals. They went 2-1 at home in the 2019 playoffs, when they lost in seven games in the first round to the San Jose Sharks.
Their .692 winning percentage at home in the 2018 and 2019 playoffs combined was the best among teams that played at least eight games.
No place in the NHL is like T-Mobile Arena on game day — or at, as the Vegas calls it, “Knight Time.” The bass booms so hard that it thumps your chest and rattles your drink. Showgirls dance against the glass at the visitors’ end during warmup. A pregame show entertains the fans, some of whom come dressed in glittery gold outfits.
It is a spectacle all its own, and the place is loud. Reporters often ask players after a big win how much the atmosphere contributed to it.
The NHL paused the season March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus, then created an unprecedented 24-team tournament in the Return to Play Plan — 12 Western Conference teams in Edmonton, 12 Eastern Conference teams in Toronto, no fans in the stands.
It hasn’t been the same, even though the NHL has used recorded crowd noise and music from each NHL arena. But that’s OK. After the game Sunday, this time a reporter asked about the Golden Knights creating their own energy.
“Obviously sometimes without fans it’s a little dead,” forward Jonathan Marchessault said. “So we’re just trying to stay alive on the bench, try to talk to each other between linemates. When somebody [makes] a good hit or a good play, we try to be extra positive. Yeah, we’re a team that likes to be alive on the bench for sure.”
Most important, the Golden Knights have given themselves lots of opportunities to be positive, because management has built such a strong team.
President of hockey operations George McPhee and general manager Kelly McCrimmon did a masterful job in the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft, when McPhee was GM and McCrimmon was assistant GM, not only assembling the initial roster, but stockpiling assets for future moves.
In their inaugural season, they recognized they were better than expected and went for it. They almost won the Cup. Still, they didn’t stand pat. They have made lots of changes and been unafraid to make difficult, controversial decisions.
They replaced coach Gerard Gallant with Peter DeBoer — the former Sharks coach who had eliminated them in the playoffs — Jan. 15 even though they were in a playoff spot. They acquired goalie Robin Lehner from the Chicago Blackhawks on Feb. 24, and now Lehner has taken the No. 1 job from Marc-Andre Fleury, the face of the franchise and a fan favorite.
That caused a dustup Saturday, when Fleury’s agent, Allan Walsh, tweeted an image of a sword in Fleury’s back labeled “DeBoer.” But Fleury met with McCrimmon and DeBoer and asked Walsh to take it down, and by Sunday night, even though Lehner shut out the Canucks and improved to 6-1-0 in the postseason, goaltending was not the story.
The story was Vegas’ dominance. This is a team with good chemistry despite turning over significantly in three seasons, a team with talent down the roster, a team that can win on The Strip or at a neutral site, a team that can ignore outside noise and make its own noise on the bench.
“We’re here for one thing,” DeBoer said, “and that’s to pursue a Stanley Cup.”