MONTREAL - It was a nice goal to be sure. A shorthanded effort in the third period of a game still up for grabs. It had meaning in the moment. But the reaction on the Vegas Golden Knights bench laid bare a cathartic mix of emotions. Joy, relief and a sidecar of bittersweet.
As Chandler Stephenson spun around to face his onrushing teammates and celebrate a goal which put his team up 3-0 on the Ottawa Senators, it was clear on the bench that victory would come this night. There were high fives and whoops. A day which had begun cloaked in confusion and guilt would end in happiness. The NHL is about winning games. It's what keeps managers and coaches employed. It steeps the value of players. And it's why fans cheer on a team. Everyone wants to win.
So a day after beloved Gerard Gallant and his top assistant Mike Kelly had been fired, a win was the salve everyone around the organization needed.
"At the end of the day the goal is to win games," said goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who was back to his solid self after a handful of sub-par games. "We did that today. We played a good game from the start. I felt better. I made more key saves to keep us ahead in the game. Goals are going to happen but if I can be more like this, more consistent, I think we'll be alright."
On his first night as head coach of the Golden Knights, Pete DeBoer was able to get a win and begin to instill some lost confidence into his group of players.
"It's never easy. Especially when you lose good men. For Turk (Gallant) and Kells (Kelly), a lot of us call them friends," said veteran winger Mark Stone. "But we're in the business of winning. So when we don't, changes happen that maybe we don't like. But we have to trust that they're the right ones. Peter had a great speech. He understands what guys think of Gerard and I think he respects Gerard just as much as we do. That being said, we played a great game of hockey (Thursday night). We got back to our habits and that mentality of desperate hockey. The type of guys we have in this room, nothing has been given to anybody. So we need to continue that."
DeBoer inherits a team which has some coveted pieces. Fleury and Stone for instance are as good as they come in the NHL and capable of anchoring a contender.
No roster in the NHL is perfect and management will be open to tinkering prior to the trade deadline. There are improving prospects in the AHL which could also help. It's unlikely the last change has been made within this season.
Two games remain prior to the all-star break and DeBoer will be using the next few days to continue a thorough evaluation of his new organization. Practice, video sessions, conversations with management and acclimating himself with everything VGK is on the docket right now.
Next week DeBoer will arrive in Vegas and develop his blueprint for the rest of the season. He'll put that together in concert with his coaching staff and management and then install it once the players return.
DeBoer's stated goal is to contend for the Stanley Cup this season. So there's not much time for spinning tires. Vegas awoke on Friday sitting in a wild card playoff spot with a record of 25-19-6 and 56 points. Troubling is the team's points percentage of .560 which ranks them fifth in the Pacific Division. DeBoer has to get his head around what he has on his bench and how to get the most out of them over the next 32 regular season games. And he has to do it all while winning games. The heavy lifting required to qualify for the post-season is what makes the NHL so intriguing on a nightly basis. But the parity can slice through a team's dreams like an untethered chainsaw. Winning is hard and it has to happen consistently. Good teams miss the playoffs every year.
For the players, DeBoer represents a new opportunity. They've learned at the hands of one accomplished professor for the last two and a half years. Now they have a new instructor with different but equally impressive credentials. DeBoer can provide them with new avenues for individual growth.
What will it all add up to in the next few months? Anyone's guess. What's clear is the race is on. DeBoer will be the busiest coach in the NHL for the next few weeks. He got out of the gate well. Now, a city, a fanbase and a league is keenly watching to see how he'll run it.