The Golden Knights play fast, forecheck hard and work harder. And even in the face of injuries, Vegas isn’t straying from their vision of how the game should be played.
You watch the Vegas Golden Knights and you can’t help but notice how they, in the hockey vernacular, play the game the right way. You watch Reilly Smith and you wonder exactly what the heck the Florida Panthers were thinking when they traded him for a fourth-round pick. You look for their identity and the first word that comes to mind is relentless. You admire how dogged they are on the forecheck and how hard they work down low. You look at the speed in their game and their willingness to use it.
And then you suddenly realize you have a new favorite NHL team. And it’s the Vegas Golden Knights. This is a little jarring because you were never really a fan of the NHL going to another place in the desert. Because the first time was, and continues to be, an unmitigated disaster. You never thought this was happen because expansion teams are supposed to be cute and cuddly and bad and boring and they’re not supposed to have a 9-4-1 record in their first 14 games. They’re not supposed to lose all their goalies and remain competitive. You wanted so badly to dislike this team, but you simply can’t bring yourself to do it.
But then you think back to something their GM said a couple of months before the team even had its first player. George McPhee is a protégé of the late Pat Quinn, a stubborn Irishman who had a distinct idea of how the game should be played and stuck with it, even in the face of a mountain of evidence against it. “It’s an entertaining way to play for your fans, it’s a fun way to play for the players,” McPhee said at the time. “It can be successful. You can win championships playing that way and Pittsburgh has done it recently. And Chicago has done it and hockey should never be boring. That’s the way we’ll build our team.”
And you admire the Golden Knights for sticking with their vision. The easiest thing for them to do when their first-, second- and third-string goalies went down was to run and hide, to retreat into a shell and keep the chances against down to a minimum. They could have sat back and put people to sleep with the 1-3-1 and not even cared about the little black thing until the opponents crossed their own blueline with it. But they haven’t done that and everyone who loves the game should be cheering for it to continue to be successful.
“I’m not a boring coach,” Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant said after watching his team play in and lose its first-ever shootout game, 4-3 to the Toronto Maple Leafs Monday night. “We’re going to compete hard and we’re not going to sit back and trap and play that type of hockey. We’re going to play an upbeat type of game. Tonight was probably the flattest our team has been and we still played OK. I want to play a high-tempo game and that’s the way we’re going to play it.”
There’s, of course, a caveat to that. The Golden Knights have an understanding with their coach that they can freelance and throw the shackles off all they want provided they take care of the details in their own end first. It’s a reasonable thing to expect. So when you see Nate Schmidt ragging the puck all over the ice and jumping into the play in overtime, you know it’s because he’s done the right things to create his opportunities. Something that helps this group is that it is made up of a bunch of very good, but not great players, the kind of players who have to play that way to continue to earn a regular paycheck in the best league in the world. Or as Schmidt himself put it: “That’s just the way we have to play. We have to outwork teams. We’re not going go out there and out-skill the Toronto Maple Leafs.”
No, they most certainly are not. But a lot of organizations would be armed with that self-awareness and would use it to bore teams faster than a cranky octogenarian talking about the good old days. After the game, Leafs coach Mike Babcock talked about how the Golden Knights “are playing with house money and enjoying it,” and we’re not sure whether he used that term deliberately. And he’s right to a certain extent. He talked about how they could trade all their free agents at the deadline, then re-sign them all back next season.
That, of course, is predicated on the notion that the Golden Knights will have nothing to play for by Feb. 26, a prospect that is looking less and less likely by the day. These guys aren’t going anywhere because of their approach to the game. And that’s why they’re my new favorite team. And if you’re looking for one yourself, I suggest you get on the bandwagon because it will fill up quickly if this keeps up.
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