Heading into his fourth professional season, Oscar Dansk wondered if he would ever play in an NHL game.
Max Lagace had the same thoughts. He had worked up to an NHL contract, but figured his chances were slim.
Both signed with the Golden Knights simply for fresh starts. Instead, they landed starring roles in the whirlwind story of the Knights’ first season.
“Being a part of a new organization like this, it doesn’t happen too often,” Dansk said. “I’m not bragging right now, but maybe when you’re old and you’re sitting in your rocking chair, maybe you can brag to your grandkids or something like that. It’s a cool thing to be a part of, and we’re lucky.”
With Marc-Andre Fleury and Malcolm Subban at the top of the Golden Knights goaltender chart, Dansk and Lagace got comfortable with playing for the team’s AHL affiliate — the Chicago Wolves — for the long haul.
But by mid-October, the Knights’ fortunes appeared on the brink of collapse with the loss of Fleury and Subban.
There were likely other options the Knights could have chosen — instead they looked to their rookies.
“They could’ve made moves to save their season, but they trusted us,” Lagace said. “That’s a very big gift.”
Dansk was recalled first, and his stint was full of milestones. Dansk’s first full game as a Knight was a 4-2 win against the Chicago Blackhawks on Oct. 24. Three days later, Dansk recorded the first shutout in franchise history in a 7-0 victory against Colorado, which also garnered him NHL Second Star of the Week honors.
But Dansk suffered a lower body injury on Oct. 30, and then it was Lagace’s turn in net.
In the first call-up of his career, Lagace started 11 consecutive games from Oct. 31-Nov. 24 and compiled a 5-4 record.
Two players who hadn’t envisioned themselves in NHL games proved that not only could they play, but they could flourish.
A solid support system
As they look back at their Vegas run, Dansk and Lagace said that they quickly had to adjust to their new roles, as well as the speed, shots, and passes of the NHL.
“You can’t really cheat your way through. You’ll be exposed in that league for sure,” Lagace said. “But (Knights goalie coach) Dave Prior did a really good job with us and getting us prepared for games … He did well in making us feel confident.”
Mike Rosati, the Knights goaltending development coach, spends time between Chicago and Las Vegas. He works closely with Wolves goaltending coach Stan Dubicki and Prior to monitor the development of Dansk and Lagace.
“They benefited greatly by being called up and working with Dave Prior one-on-one,” Rosati said. “The abilities are always there, but Dave is a master at getting the most out of his players and getting them to strategize better.”
Dansk and Lagace also received texts of encouragement after a game or practice tips from Fleury. Both emphasized that Fleury’s stardom is not bigger than his heart.
“The way he takes care of the younger guys, whether me, Max or Subban, he’s been incredible. You can’t say enough about him,” Dansk said. “When I’m older, that’s how I want to be.”
Dansk and Lagace returned to Chicago as more confident and secure players.
“Games didn’t always go like I wanted in Vegas, but for the most part I’m very happy with how I played,” Lagace said. “The confidence was really high, and it’s still there. Now I know what I have to prove to actually be there full-time if the opportunity comes.”
The experience strengthened a bond for the two, and they continue to learn from each other.
“When I got injured, I wasn’t with the team that much, but we both stayed at the same hotel there and I think it helped our relationship,” Dansk said. “He’ll ask me how I looked and I’ll ask him how I looked. It’s nice to not just ask coaches. You can ask your teammates, and that’s a good thing. You get a different kind of feedback.”
That reliability and poise also has meant a lot to the Knights organization.
“It’s a luxury to know that you’ve got goalies in your system that can step up and play if need be,” Rosati said. “For Vegas … it’s comforting, for sure.”
Dansk played in his native Sweden for two years prior to signing with the Knights. Lagace was stuck shuttling between the ECHL and the AHL.
Both needed a change, and no other NHL teams had given them a shot — until the Knights.
Dansk is expected to make his Wolves return soon, while Lagace is back with the Knights after an injury sidelined Subban again. Their time in the spotlight still hasn’t really hit them, but once it does, it will be something special to look back on.
“When we were in it, when everything happened, it was so quick. We didn’t really have time to look back, and be like, ‘It’s happening,’” Lagace said. “But I bet in the summer or something like that, we’ll be like, “Oh wow, that was one hell of a season.”
Contact Emily Polglaze at email@example.com. Follow @enpolglaze on Twitter.