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Now comes the hard part for Gallant and the Golden Knights

Is the fun over for Vegas? Not so fast. The Golden Knights know expectations will skyrocket next season, but their coach insists maintaining the fun factor is the best way to persevere.

LAS VEGAS – There was a hint of edge in Gerard Gallant’s voice, like he was ready to throw his first punch since retiring as an NHL player in 1995.

“I sound like a broken record here.”

If one more reporter asked, “How are you going to duplicate the Golden Knights’ success next year?” he might have snapped. Instead, he fielded just the right amount of questions on the subject through slightly gritted teeth.

And how could he not? The Washington Capitals’ wild, joyful, water-fountain-splashin’ celebrations had dominated the headlines for the past couple weeks since they won their first Stanley Cup, but, before that moment, the Vegas Golden Knights were the story of the 2017-18 NHL season, the 109-point juggernaut expansion team that reached the final, the greatest first-year franchise in major pro team sports history. It was time to turn attention back to the Golden Knights now that a few weeks had passed – to see what perspective they’d gained and, yes, to prod Gallant, the probable winner of the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year, about how on earth his team expects to replicate its effort. Before Gallant could think about that, he had to spend some time recovering from the five-game series defeat, of course.

“It was close to a week,” he said. “Actually, after the game, I didn’t feel good, but I felt relieved, you know, ‘The season’s over, we had a great year.’ The next two or three days were tough, but after that…we had a great season. You think about the good stuff, the way we played, and it was a lot of fun. It’s gonna be a lot of fun this summer.”

During his scrum, Gallant said “fun” half a dozen times. It was the word he used to summarize his team’s season. The Golden Knights entered the year with zero expectations on their shoulders, decided to embrace the fun of the challenge every game, and they got career-best work from almost every guy on the team, from William Karlsson to Erik Haula to Nate Schmidt to Colin Miller.

“We said, ‘If we’re going to be successful, it’s going to be about every guy having his best year, and you know what? I think they all did,” Gallant said. “They worked hard, they had fun, and everybody had career years.”

That made the Golden Knights a shockingly formidable opponent. Talk of a fluky start quickly turned to respect as rivals and media realized they’d underestimated this team. It became clear GM George McPhee had stolen some undervalued assets and that Gallant knew how to unlock their potential. Nowhere was that more apparent than in Karlsson, whose 18:43 of ice time per game bested his career average entering the season by about five minutes.

“I’ve always wanted more,” Karlsson told reporters Tuesday. “I wasn’t really happy with the way I was playing in Columbus or the role I was given. There were times I got down on myself, but I knew that coming here was a great chance for me. And it was just up to me to take the chance. Ever since I got put with (Jonathan) Marchessault and (Reilly) Smith, we had a chemistry, and it just snowballed from there.”

It was a magical story, and the Knights had to be good to be lucky – but they also had to be lucky to be good. Everything broke right. No one bet on Haula scoring 29 goals, and no one bet on Karlsson leading the NHL in shooting percentage and spiking his career high from nine to 43 goals. Even the team’s exit meetings were strange. As Gallant explained, there was no negativity, no imploring players to get in shape or sort their heads out. It was nothing but sunshine. That’s not something most teams experience after a heartbreaking playoff defeat.

It’s a reminder that 2018-19 will be a different challenge. Bristling would be too strong a word, as Gallant is a pleasant presence, but he was ready to throw his hands up at being asked over and over how his team will manage newfound expectations. What do you tell the guys on Game 1 of next season now that the Knights won’t sneak up on anyone?

“I don’t tell ’em nothin’,” Gallant said. “One game at a time, be ready for next season, and have a great summer. We’ve got to do what we did last year, and it’s gonna be hard, but for me, it’s not going to be about getting 109 points like we did this year. We’re not going to talk about it. We’re going to talk about, ‘Win Game 1 and go from there. You can’t worry about trying to do what we did this year. If it happens, that’s great, but we can’t worry about it.”

Now, the Golden Knights wait to see what McPhee does. Might he resume the pursuit of Erik Karlsson that began at the 2018 trade deadline? Will UFAs James Neal and David Perron return? The Knights may look different by opening night. Maybe they’ll be perceived as inferior to this past season’s group and fashion themselves underdogs again. Whatever happens, Gallant insists the goal will be to keep having fun, cherishing every day and trying to burn away the pressure.

Not that the Knights won’t have to work their tails off. Quite the contrary. They’ll need to grind even more.

“If I don’t work hard in the summer, if I think I can come back here and have it easy, I can’t,” William Karlsson said. “So I have to work even harder and try to be better.”

It’s safe to say Karlsson speaks for all his teammates.

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