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Knights showing chemistry, having fun during stellar start

The Golden Knights used a unique countdown when posing for a photo commemorating Phil Kessel’s record-setting 990th game played Tuesday.

“One, two, three, Selke!”

It was a perfectly timed chirp at Kessel’s less than stellar reputation away from the puck — he’s never received a single vote for the award for best defensive forward — right after his historic accomplishment. It was followed with a loud “Phil, Phil, Phil” chant that had defenseman Alec Martinez pumping both his fists.

The scene was a behind-the-scenes example of what’s been clear watching the Knights on the ice through nine games. They have chemistry. They’re enjoying each other’s company. Above all else, they’re having fun.

That’s far from the only reason they’ve raced out to a 7-2 start that’s third-best in the NHL by points percentage. But it sure doesn’t hurt.

“Everyone is just happy to be here,” goaltender Logan Thompson said. “It’s weird. Even when I was in Henderson, I don’t think I’ve been a part of a closer team than this right now.”

There’s no question about it. Last year was a slog for the Knights.

They had more than 500 man games lost to injuries. They missed the playoffs for the first time. Players were coming in and out of the lineup, and the team wasn’t enjoying the success it was used to.

That led to an attitude shift when the Knights returned from the longest summer in their history. It’s not that they were lackadaisical before. But the long break from hockey brought a new focus.

“We had a bad taste in our mouths,” Martinez said. “Guys don’t forget that.”

The Knights came back with some new characters.

Kessel brightened up the locker room because, despite all his success, he’s still willing to trade barbs with anyone. Thompson’s competitive fire brought a new edge to practice and games like Friday’s, when he shoved one opponent from his crease and talked trash with another.

The two have breathed extra life into a group that came to training camp with a lot of energy and had lost glue guys such as goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, right wing Ryan Reaves and defensemen Nate Schmidt and Nick Holden in previous years.

Veteran leaders such as captain Mark Stone, forwards Reilly Smith and Jack Eichel and defensemen Martinez, Alex Pietrangelo and Brayden McNabb also keep things composed.

Pietrangelo said one thing the Knights have done well this year is looking in the mirror after wins and seeing where they can still improve. They’re holding each other accountable. It makes for a good mix when the players can joke around but also have serious conversations among each other.

It’s something owner Bill Foley is pleased with, because he viewed the Knights’ camaraderie their first year as a key reason why they made the Stanley Cup Final.

“They had fun all the time,” Foley said. “So we’re trying to (say) let’s have some fun again. That means you have to change the personality of the team a little bit to get back to what it was. I believe we’ve done that.”

It is easier for the Knights to enjoy themselves while winning.

A lot has gone their way to this point. Injuries have been almost nonexistent since the start of camp. They’ve scored first in seven of nine games and rarely trailed. Thompson and goalie partner Adin Hill have yet to have an off night.

The Knights’ chemistry will be tested once adversity hits. They can’t get complacent after just nine games.

Still, this start makes the rink a much easier place to be at. The Knights ended last October 4-4 with Stone, center William Karlsson, left wing Max Pacioretty and defenseman Zach Whitecloud hurt. Now Stone is healthy and firing off one of his trademark celebrations every time he’s on the ice for a goal. Things couldn’t feel more different.

“The vibe is great right now,” McNabb said. “We’re winning and playing well.”

Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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