GLENDALE, Ariz. – Most NHL teams that play in Las Vegas for the first time not only have to contend with the stunningly strong Golden Knights, but they have to avoid the temptations of Sin City.
The Flyers, thanks to their condensed schedule, have to deal only with the former.
That’s coach Dave Hakstol’s hope, anyway.
Since the Flyers play in Arizona on Saturday night and probably won’t get to Vegas until early Sunday morning, there won’t be much time to, um, inspect the Strip. The Flyers will play in Vegas at 5 p.m. Pacific time on Sunday, so they are expected to go straight to their hotel after their plane lands and get some needed sleep.
“There’s pluses and minuses to every part of the schedule,” Hakstol said the other day. “The negative is, we’re going in on a back-to-back; it’s a 23-hour turnaround against a team that hasn’t played in a few days and they’re in their own building. That’s the challenge. But just by the nature of the trip, there shouldn’t be any of those Vegas distractions, so I don’t think it’s something we need to talk about” with the players.
“We’re going to get there, go to bed, and wake up the next morning,” said defenseman Andrew MacDonald, one of the Flyers’ alternate captains. “Obviously, Vegas has the persona of having a lot of distractions, but that won’t be the case. … I think earlier in the year it may have been something you have to address, but at this point, every game is so important and means so much, so I don’t think we have to worry about that.”
Other teams have had to deal with temptations. Former Flyer Braydon Coburn, now with Tampa Bay, said Lightning coach Jon Cooper didn’t say much to the team before it arrived in Vegas, but he did issue a gentle warning: “Be smart and remember you’re here for a reason,” he told them.
We presume the Lightning players took his advice, but even that wasn’t enough. Vegas won, 4-3, in a battle of conference leaders.
Tampa Bay has company. Most teams that go into the electric T-Mobile Arena leave with a loss. Vegas has a staggering 19-3-2 home record.
“It was a carnival atmosphere there; the fans were really loud – among the loudest in the league,” Coburn said. “The arena is beautiful, and it feels like the fans are right on top of you. You could feel the energy. It’s really buzzing, and the people are really into the game. It felt like we had a good mix of our fans there and their fans and they were feeding off each other.”
Many fans from the Philadelphia area will be attending the game, and the team’s fan club was to have a meet-and-greet Saturday with Vegas’ Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, the former Flyers center, at the Venetian Rockhouse Bar from 4 to 5:30 p.m.
Bellemare, 32, the always-upbeat little Frenchman, has been one of the team’s top penalty killers. He was surprisingly selected by Vegas over many younger Flyers in the expansion draft.
“He was one of the most popular guys in this room,” Hakstol said. “It was just last year he put a letter on for us [as an alternate captain], and I think that kind of spoke to how everyone felt about him. First-class person, and he’s having a tremendous year with the team there.”
Castoffs and blossoming young players have thrived in Vegas, where goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (2.03 goals-against average, .934 save percentage), William Karlsson (29 goals), James Neal (24 goals), Eric Haula (21 goals), Jonathan Marchessault (20 goals), and David Perron (49 points) have led the way. The Golden Knights have the Western Conference’s best record (36-14-4), and they went into the weekend second among the NHL’s 31 teams in goals scored and eighth in goals allowed.
In 1974, the Flyers won the Stanley Cup in their seventh year of existence, the quickest that has ever been done by an expansion team. The Golden Knights think they can do it in their first year.
“When you look at their roster, I don’t think it’s a big surprise that they would have some success,” Hakstol said. “But, I mean, they’re near the top of the National Hockey League.”
“As much as you want to talk about having great individual talent, this is still a team game,” Coburn said, “and when everybody is on the same page, great things can happen.”
MacDonald said “everyone’s a little surprised that players who never played together” are legitimate Cup contenders. “It’s a unique dynamic, and, historically speaking, the results haven’t been great with expansion teams. But they’ve done a great job of playing together as a team and you have to give them a lot of credit. It’s great for the game to see that kind of growth immediately.”
Generous expansion-draft rules, and shrewd selections and trades made by general manager George McPhee have Vegas writing one of the most remarkable stories in NHL history. The Golden Knights are the opposite of the Washington Capitals’ 1974-75 expansion team, the one that went (gulp) 8-67-5.
Vegas won its eighth game on Oct. 27, when it was 8-1. Think about that.