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Emotional night for Golden Knights, Las Vegas

Players hope win against Stars in first NHL game lifts spirits of city

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

DALLAS -- A month ago, they were a collection of people from other places. Friday night, they were a team, representatives of a city.

Their city.

 

[RELATED: Golden Knights-Stars game recapNHL teams send message of support to Las Vegas]

 

They were the Vegas Golden Knights, and thanks to 45 saves by goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and two third-period goals by right wing James Neal, they had come back to defeat the Dallas Stars 2-1 in the NHL expansion franchise's first regular-season game.

It was an intense mix of emotions in the dressing room -- celebration, solemnity, history. The Golden Knights whooped and hollered. They wore "VEGAS STRONG" T-shirts. They collected mementos for the Hockey Hall of Fame.

"Being a new team we have a lot of new fans, a lot of people affected by what happened," Neal said. "Hopefully they tuned in tonight and it could put a smile on their face because we're playing for our city. It's going to be a lot of fun this year."

Video: Vegas Clinches their First Victory

We all know what happened. The worst mass shooting in American history happened in Las Vegas on Sunday night, just down the Strip from T-Mobile Arena, where the Golden Knights had played their preseason finale, and The Cosmopolitan, where some players were having a postgame meal.

Fifty-eight people died, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Friday. Four hundred eighty-nine were injured.

The Golden Knights cancelled a fan event downtown to promote their inaugural season. They partnered with the NHL and the Foley Family Charitable Trust to donate $300,000 to victims and first responders; visited victims, their families, first responders and blood banks; and made plans to honor victims and first responders at their home opener against the Arizona Coyotes on Oct. 10.

"It's such a tragedy," Fleury said. "We can't undo what happened. We'll do our best. We'll work as hard as we can to make the city proud of us and try to maybe get a little change of mind a bit when they come to a game."

When the Golden Knights took the ice at American Airlines Center on Friday night, they lined up on the blue line. The Stars lined up on the opposite blue line. Then the lights went out, and the Stars skated toward the Golden Knights.

Stars coach Ken Hitchcock came up with the idea of the teams standing together. But the Stars brass talked about it and decided to do something else and cleared it with the Golden Knights brass. Instead of standing with the Golden Knights, the Stars stood behind them. They stood behind Vegas. When have you ever seen something like that before?

"VIVA LAS VEGAS," the scoreboard screen said in white letters on a black background.

The fans roared.

The NHL released a 47-second video featuring a player from each of the other 30 NHL teams, including Stars captain Jamie Benn, Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby and Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, repeating the same lines of support.

"We're with you, Vegas."

"We're all on your team."

"Your team is our team."

"Vegas strong."

Video: We're all on your team. Vegas United. Vegas Strong

When the first puck dropped for the Golden Knights, with center Cody Eakin facing off against Stars center Tyler Seguin, they and their opponents wore 'VEGAS STRONG' stickers on their helmets.

For a while, it looked as expected. The Stars outskated the expansion team. They outshot them in the first period 14-10. They outshot them in the second 21-8. But it was 1-0 thanks to Fleury. The only goal he allowed came on the Stars' 32nd shot, at 17:01 of the second, when Seguin deflected a puck in the left circle on the power play.

"Flower was unbelievable -- save after save after save," Neal said of Fleury, his former teammate with the Penguins. "I've been there with him before and seen that. … I couldn't be happier to have him here in Vegas with us."

Then, with 9:33 to go, came the first goal in Golden Knights history. On a delayed penalty for Dallas, Neal jumped onto the ice and took a short pass from defenseman Nate Schmidt. Neal had not played in the preseason while recovering from hand surgery, but he saw traffic in front of Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen and fired a healthy wrist shot from the top of the right circle.

"It found a way in," Neal said.

Tie game. Momentum. Neal celebrated with his teammates against the boards and bumped fists along the bench.

"We battled back," Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant said. "The score was 1-0. We were right there banging on the door. When Neal tied it up, the guys felt real good on the bench."

Then, with 2:44 to go, came the second goal in Golden Knights history. Eakin, whom the Stars had exposed in the NHL Expansion Draft, drew two Dallas defenders to him on the rush and slipped a pass to his right. Neal kneeled on his left knee to catch the pass in his skates, spotted Lehtonen going down and flipped the puck over him.

"Found the back of the net," Neal said.

Neal went nuts. The bench went nuts.

Hopefully, at least for a moment, folks in Las Vegas were smiling.

"It was a great feeling," Neal said. "Guys were pumped up. We were playing for each other out there. It's different being an expansion team, getting to know each guy in a month, so we've got to become a team quick. It's a good start tonight."

Video: VGK@DAL: Stars, Vegas stand as one for tributes

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