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Knights’ Journey: Golden Knights are Vegas Born

Updated April 9, 2018 - 2:48 pm

The picture was of an AR-15 rifle mounted with a magnification scope and sitting atop bipod legs, perhaps because the murderous coward desired it to be further from the 32nd floor window so as to hide all the smoke and flashes.

But however many times the man who fired so much terror and grief and death down upon those petrified innocent lives scattering for safety peered through his minuscule globe of destruction, he couldn’t have known the strength and resolve and spirit that existed in the city he so viciously damaged.

And, in turn, Las Vegas couldn’t at the moment have imagined that such a major part of the healing process would be discovered through its relationship with a hockey team.

The faithful bond between Southern Nevada and the Golden Knights was born, in large part, through the response to a mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival on 1 October, where 58 were killed and more than 700 injured from those bullets raining down from a suite at Mandalay Bay.

In a most inexplicable manner, an NHL expansion team of which the majority of players and staff had no ties to Las Vegas before landing here to open an inaugural season, suddenly became a vehicle by which the town could begin its long and difficult road to recovery.

Sports have a way of doing that.

“It was a disaster (on Oct. 1), a terrible massacre, so we changed our initial opening night ceremonies,” Knights owner Bill Foley said. “I’m so proud of the whole team. The team just connected to the town. They were brand new here. No one knew them. And they still went out and (experienced) some tough situations.

“From then on, it was pretty unbelievable.”

He speaks of the home opener against Arizona at T-Mobile Arena on Oct. 10, Vegas having already begun what would prove a magical season-long run to the playoffs with road wins versus Dallas and the Coyotes, and the both incredibly sad and uplifting pregame ceremony meant to unify a city whose collective hearts were ripped apart by the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

The speech that Tuesday evening lasted exactly 58 seconds — one for each of those killed — and it was more than fitting that Knights defenseman and Las Vegas resident Deryk Engelland addressed the gathering of 18,191.

His wife, Melissa, helped write the words, a stirring tribute delivered with the names of the victims emblazoned on the ice and each Knights player having escorted a first responder onto the rink, those from police and fire and medical and other emergency services recognized for their heroism in the aftermath of the shootings.

“I don’t usually talk in front of many people, so that was a little different,” Engelland said thinking back. “It definitely came from the heart, being from here.”

A team and town unite

The Knights would jump on Arizona 4-0 over the opening 10 minutes and post a 5-2 victory, becoming the first NHL expansion team to begin an initial season 3-0-0.

It doesn’t bring anybody (who was killed) back. But I hope that we’ve changed people’s mind a bit and get them to come here and have a good time at T-Mobile and be proud of their hometown team.

From there, buoyed by the spirit of such mantras as Vegas Strong and a home ice advantage that became more and more remarkable with each passing victory, the Knights won nine of their first 10 games in Las Vegas and set the tone for what would be a historic season.

One defined by its inspired beginning.

“We always go back to our first home game,” said coach Gerard Gallant. “It wasn’t about our team winning, it wasn’t about nothing — it was about the first responders and the tragedy that happened the week before. It was a tough way to start our season, but I think the guys and everybody supported it well. They all came out and played an unbelievable game that first night and I just think it carried over.”

They say it’s different than other cities in which they have played, how fans approach them and ask for pictures and autographs, Knights players having been adopted and embraced by Las Vegas in a manner that reaches far beyond a game. They are thanked, more than anything, for providing such a positive and needed distraction in a such a horrible time, for being some of the first ones to visit hospitals and blood banks following the shooting.

“I think it all went hand and hand, us coming together as a team and city and community and town,” said Knights forward James Neal. “You’re suddenly playing for a lot more than yourself and the team. It goes further, it means more. Very special to be part of.”

The murderous coward had an arsenal of 23 weapons and accessories, including semiautomatic rifles, scopes and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, in his 32nd floor suite. I’m not sure how often he might have looked through those minuscule globes of destruction, how cloudless his vision was peering down from the darkness, but this is absolutely certain: He in no way grasped the courage and resilience and backbone of Las Vegas.

Just as the city could have never forecast such a large and important part of its healing would emerge in the form of a hockey team.

“It doesn’t bring anybody (who was killed) back,” Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. “But I hope that we’ve changed people’s mind a bit and get them to come here and have a good time at T-Mobile and be proud of their hometown team.”

For this, there is no debate.

A magical season-long run to the playoffs began with thousands of tears falling as 58 seconds slowly ticked away from a video screen high above the T-Mobile Arena ice one Tuesday in October.

From that near-moment on, a town and team were forever linked in a faithful bond born from an inspired response to an haunting image of terror.

It was, in so many ways, a Knight to remember.

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Vegas Golden Knights’ Marc-Andre Fleury in action during an NHL hockey game against the Philadelphia Flyers, Monday, March 12, 2018, in Philadelphia. Vegas won 3-2. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

You earn an NHL playoff berth over 82 games, understanding the roller coaster of any season delivers various highs and lows and sharp turns that must be deftly handled.

In terms of the historic run made by the Golden Knights, consider a different number: 25.

That’s how many consecutive games goalie Marc-Andre Fleury missed with a concussion over two months between October and December, the face of the franchise — and by far its most popular and famous selection from the expansion draft — sent to injured reserve after taking a knee to the head from Red Wings forward Anthony Mantha during a 6-3 loss.

It was the season’s fourth game.

Fleury was the guy whose resume of three Stanley Cup rings in Pittsburgh would at least sell tickets for Vegas if the results mirrored what other first-year teams have endured, one player any newfound fan of hockey might have heard of as the Knights welcomed thousands of curious minds nightly to T-Mobile Arena.

But a funny thing happened on the way to what most perceived as sure disaster.

Other goalies more than stepped up in Fleury’s absence.

Here’s another number: 16-9.

That was the Vegas record over those two months.

“It was really tough, coming to a new team and wanting to help it win and then having to be out for such long time,” Fleury said. “But all the other guys jumped in and did a great job. Night after night, they found ways to be successful.

“It’s a very big reason we were able to do what we did.”

When the final chapter is written on this remarkable run — Vegas is the first team to make the NHL playoffs in its inaugural season since 1979-80 — names like Malcolm Subban and Oscar Dansk and Maxime Lagace will have played significant roles in creating such history.

Change, in this case, was hardly a curse, a good thing for the Knights when you consider how often faces in net were altered.

That’s a big part of why were able to win this season — guys playing well when we needed them the most.

Subban would play two games in place of Fleury, win both, get hurt during his third start and then join his teammate on injured reserve before returning in mid-November after an 11-game absence; Dansk would earn three victories in four starts — including the team’s first shutout in history — before also getting injured; Lagace, visibly not ready for the NHL while losing his first three games, still managed early wins against Ottawa and Winnipeg and recorded six victories this season.

There was even a brief appearance from 19-year old rookie Dylan Ferguson, recalled on an emergency basis from the Kamloops Blazers of the Western Hockey League.

The fourth different goalie to see time as Fleury mended played 10 minutes of mop-up duty in an 8-2 loss at Edmonton.

That’s how far the Knights reached into their organizational depth chart of goalies to get through those 25 games — a seventh-round draft pick who learned he was being called up when sitting in a pizza joint with WHL teammates.

At least he paid the bill for everyone before heading to the airport for a flight to join the Vegas roster.

“It’s a long season and you’re always going to have injuries,” said Knights forward Jonathan Marchessault. “But when (Fleury) went down it gave other guys a chance.

“That’s a big part of why were able to win this season — guys playing well when we needed them the most. That, more than anything, showed the kind of character we had had on this team all season.”

That, as much as anything, is why the playoffs became reality.

Read Part II: Winning streak sparks hot run for Golden Knights.

More Golden Knights: Follow all of our Golden Knights coverage online at reviewjournal.com/GoldenKnights and @HockeyinVegas on Twitter.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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