They’ve been turning heads and winning hearts since opening night Oct. 6.
Now, with Christmas approaching, the Golden Knights continue to make history while winning at an unprecedented pace. Thursday’s 2-1 victory over the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins was the latest chapter of the team’s amazing story in its inaugural season.
In getting to 20 wins in their 31st game, the Knights became the fastest NHL team to reach that mark for a first-year franchise. The 1926-27 New York Rangers took 35 games to reach 20 wins and the 1967-68 Philadelphia Fers needed 41 games.
It was Marc-Andre Fleury coming up big in goal against his former team. It was Jon Merrill, who has sat out more than he has skated, scoring the game-winner. It was James Neal, who has been the team’s top threat since opening night, delivering yet again and setting the tone with the game’s first goal 1:41 into the contest — his team-leading 15th. It became one of the most exciting games so far, played amid an electric and frenzied atmosphere in front of two energized fan bases at T-Mobile Arena.
The Penguins’ fans showed up in force, with nearly half the building wearing Pittsburgh sweaters, many with Fleury’s No. 29 on the back. But when the final horn sounded, it was the Knights’ fans, many also wearing Fleury jerseys, who left T-Mobile feeling good about themselves and their team.
And they should be feeling good. With 20 wins and 42 points, the Knights are a single point out of first place in the Pacific Division and have a game in hand on division-leading Los Angeles.
“It’s about the guys coming to the rink every day to get better,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “The guys know each other and they’re pretty confident.
“I think they’re a confident team. As long as we keep competing and battling and working hard, we’ll have a good opportunity to win games.”
Fleury’s return can’t be underestimated. As good as Malcolm Subban has played, he doesn’t have Fleury’s skills and experience. In what was his second game back after missing 25 games with a concussion, Fleury delivered in classic Fleury fashion. He made the tough saves look easy and made the spectacular saves when he had to in stopping 24 Pittsburgh shots.
“I feel better,” Fleury said after Thursday’s win, the 379th of his NHL career. “There’s still a few little things … being in the right spot, moving around. Timing-wise too, it was a little better. But it’s getting there.”
Gallant said having Fleury back gives the team a sense of normalcy.
“We did have a lot of goaltending injuries and now we have the two goalies we planned on having all year long,” he said. “The’re playing well and working hard.”
The Penguins were impressed with the overall play of the Knights.
“I think they skate well,” captain Sidney Crosby said of the Knights. “Every line plays the same and they keep it pretty simple. They didn’t beat themselves or make mistakes that could hurt them.”
Penguins goaltender Matt Murray said of the Knights: “They are just absolutely a dog and a bone on that puck. They just work so hard and I think that’s where they kind of caught us by surprise on a couple, especially on the forecheck where quick turnover, bang-bang to the net.
“I don’t think they do anything special but they work extremely hard and I think that’s why they have such success.”