You could be forgiven if, at times this season, you’ve wanted time to fast forward a little for the Vegas Golden Knights. From waiting on injury returns, to the much-anticipated arrival of Jack Eichel, to the feeling that Vegas won’t have anything to prove until playoff time, stretches of the regular season just haven’t felt terribly important this year.
Suffice to say, that wasn’t the case this past week. Playing host to four teams in seven days, the club welcomed some beloved former Knights back to T-Mobile Arena, saw a pair of their own stars return to the ice and celebrated some milestones. Let’s look back on a busy first week of 2022 in Vegas:
Jan. 2: Winnipeg Jets (Lose 5-4 in Overtime)
The Golden Knights kicked off the new year by losing a wild overtime affair against the Winnipeg Jets, who had Nate Schmidt and Paul Stastny in tow for what would be their first game in Vegas since departing the organization.
On Oct. 9, 2020, the Jets acquired Stastny from the Golden Knights for a 2022 fourth round draft choice and Carl Dahlstrom. Three days later, Schmidt was traded to Vancouver for a third round selection from the same draft. In both cap relief-minded moves, Vegas fans were unhappy with the front office’s perceived lack of loyalty towards its players.
None of that mattered on Sunday, as both men got warm receptions and celebratory video packages in their return. Stastny got on the scoresheet with one of the Jets’ four consecutive goals after the Golden Knights had taken a 2-0 lead. After an equalizer by red-hot Mattias Janmark tied the game with just nine second to go in regulation, Winnipeg’s Kyle Connor finished off a thrilling game 2:39 into overtime (from “‘This is the player we traded for’: Vegas’ Mattias Janmark finding his stride after tough recovery from COVID-19,” Jesse Granger, The Athletic, 01/07/22).
Jan. 4: Nashville Predators (Lose 3-2)
Nashville didn’t bring any familiar faces to town, unless you count Nick Cousins and his seven-game Golden Knights career. Instead, the Predators game marked another pretty cool milestone for Vegas: the first career start of goaltender Logan Thompson.
Thompson, whose journey from playing Canadian university hockey to starting between the pipes in the NHL is rather unprecedented, has looked the part of an NHL netminder while developing over two seasons with the AHL’s Henderson Silver Knights. NHL-caliber goaltending from the 24-year-old would be a boon for the Golden Knights, potentially offering affordable insurance behind Robin Lehner. If he can render Laurent Brossoit and his $2.35 million cap hit expendable, then even better.
Thompson’s first start saw him surrender three goals on 26 shots to take the loss. Of course, there’s plenty still to build on.
Jan. 6: New York Rangers (Win 5-1)
Thursday night would’ve loomed large on the strength of team quality, alone. Both Vegas and the New York Rangers reside near the top of their respective divisions and look to figure into postseason play. That being said, their shared contender status was secondary when it came to the game’s true appeal.
The Rangers’ arrival gave Golden Knights fans the chance to welcome and celebrate departed fan favorite Ryan Reaves, not to mention the franchise’s first head coach, Gerard Gallant. Both men acknowledged ahead of time that coming back would bring some bittersweet emotions, with Reaves admitting, “I think it’s gonna be a little extra something there.” (from “Rangers’ Ryan Reaves, Gerard Gallant gearing up for Vegas homecoming,” Jesse Granger, The Athletic, 01/05/22).
And what’s better than the return of former players? The return of your own players. Lehner returned to the crease after a two-week absence on account of a lower-body injury and Mark Stone took to the ice for the first time since Dec. 21, scoring the game-winner in a 5-1 victory.
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Jan. 8: Chicago Blackhawks (Lose 2-1)
Last week may well have saved best for last with the emotional return of Marc-Andre Fleury. Fittingly, Fleury was in vintage form on Saturday night, stopping 30 of 31 shots to make his homecoming at the Fortress a triumphant one. In doing so, he became the first and only goaltender to defeat all 32 NHL teams, a stat manipulated heavily by the fact that the Seattle Kraken only debuted this season, but one that is impressive nonetheless.
Fleury’s return capped off a week of seeing familiar faces, and Golden Knights head coach Pete DeBoer recognized the importance of celebrating the franchise’s unprecedented beginnings and those who made them possible. “What those guys did in year one here will never be replicated,” DeBoer said, “and they deserve all the love and attention they’re gonna get for that.”
From a performance-focused standpoint, the week’s 1-2-1 mark was utterly forgettable for Vegas. But from meaning that goes beyond wins and losses, this was one to remember. And that was before the Las Vegas Raiders clinched their playoff spot in a wild 35-32 overtime affair over the Los Angeles Chargers!
I may be a Leafs fan at heart (I’ve witnessed their highs and lows first-hand as a Scotiabank Arena employee), but I’m also a veteran freelance sportswriter who loves a good story. And there’s been no better story in hockey over the past few years than the Vegas Golden Knights. I’m excited to be covering the NHL again on the Golden Knights’ beat.