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Even in defeat, Golden Knights take big step forward

Updated January 18, 2020 - 8:54 pm

MONTREAL — Reilly Smith was walking out of the Bell Centre tunnel Saturday morning, bundled from head to toe before facing the biting cold of the largest city in Canada’s Quebec province.

His coach had been fired this past week and a new one arrived, more epidemic than trend in the NHL this season.

“You just have to stick together as a team,” Smith said. “It’s tough what is going on right now, but you just have to be responsible and professional. As much as a distraction as it can be, you can’t let it affect how you play.”

Hours later, they didn’t.

Smith and the Golden Knights forged ahead under new boss Peter DeBoer, showing the sort of fight a fresh face behind the bench could only admire.

Montreal prevailed 5-4 in a shootout, but not before the Knights had rallied from three down to eventually tie the score at 4 off a Smith goal via deflection with 7.5 seconds remaining in the third period.

“Showed a lot of character,” DeBoer said. “That’s a big hole to climb out of.”

Yeah, I know: DeBoer and another three-goal comeback involved the Knights.

He just didn’t win this one.

But time will pass, and DeBoer will apply his stamp more and more and Vegas will just look different than it did under Gerard Gallant. That sort of thing is happening around the league a lot.

DeBoer was fired, and then hired, and good luck figuring out his future or that of anyone else holding such a position.

Put an NHL sweater over all those plates that folks shoot down at carnivals.

Coaches are dropping just as fast.

It’s not something to make sense of, the reasons so profoundly vast as to why and when teams move on from coaches. They can be even more puzzling in hockey, where a facet like puck luck often overcomes even the most well-prepared side.

Small things, more than any other sport, lead to countless wins and losses.

Still, interchangeable doesn’t begin to describe what has transpired, with seven coaches having been shown the door this season.

That’s 23 percent.

DeBoer was fired by San Jose in December before replacing the jetttisoned Gallant.

John Hynes was fired in New Jersey and then hired in Nashville once Peter Laviolette was bounced. Mike Babcock was axed in Toronto. Bill Peters resigned in Calgary after it was discovered he previously used a racial slur and physically abused players. An issue with alcohol abuse got Jim Montgomery fired in Dallas.

“I think this is the best analogy,” Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice said when learning of the Gallant firing. “You’re in a marriage, you love the woman, but it’s getting a little bit rocky. Then you come home one day and she says, ’We’re going in a different direction, and there’s gonna be a press conference in three hours and we’re gonna talk about how great the new husband’s gonna be.’

“So, it’s tough. You put your heart and soul into it and then you’re out.”

And then there is a team left to pick up the pieces and move on.

Moving past drama

It’s where the Knights are now and likely will remain for the time being, a roster of players inheriting a new coach at the midseason point while battling a handful of other teams in the Pacific Division.

They played off emotion in beating Ottawa 4-2 in DeBoer’s debut Thursday, Gallant having been fired 24 hours prior. But you can only be motivated by sentiment for so long, and what the Knights did Saturday in digging deep and overcoming the adversity of a forgettable start was more about returning to hockey and moving beyond drama.

“You have to come to the rink and be professional,” defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “You have relationships with people. It hurts. You feel like a piece of you is missing. At the same time, we’re paid to do a job and perform. This all can be awesome and the best job in the world. And some days, it’s emotional and tough.”

The new coach said afterward that, even in defeat, the Knights can build off such a performance. DeBoer’s message between the first and second periods — Vegas down 3-0 and having not looked comfortable against a sixth-place team in the Atlantic Division— was that much hockey remained to be played.

They heeded his words and made a game of it, clawing back in the same week their locker room was turned upside down with all sorts of feelings.

Fact: The Knights took a big step forward.

No matter what the final score read.

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 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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