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Golden Knights continue improbable start to season

Dramatic wins on back-to-back nights helping to establish expansion team's identity

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

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- James Neal stood outside the Vegas Golden Knights locker room as his teammates walked past, slapping high fives, a hero again.

"We're [bleeping] 2-0!" one teammate yelled.

"You're hot!" another told him. "You're hot!"

 

[RELATED: Neal gives Golden Knights another win with OT goal against Coyotes]

 

As Neal did a TV interview, someone cranked up the victory song: "Jordan Belfort" by Wes Walker & Dyl. 

Can you believe it?

This NHL expansion franchise has played two regular-season games in its history, and in two nights in two cities it has earned two dramatic comeback victories. Neal, who did not play in the preseason while recovering from hand surgery, scored the winner in each.

Video: VGK@ARI: Neal nets game-winning goal in overtime

The Golden Knights defeated the Arizona Coyotes 2-1 at Gila River Arena on Saturday when Neal scored 3:46 into overtime, after Nate Schmidt tied the game with 1:12 left in the third period and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury on the bench for an extra attacker.

This, after the Golden Knights defeated the Dallas Stars 2-1 at American Airlines Center on Friday, Neal scoring the winner with 2:44 to go in the third period after tying the game with 9:33 to go.

"Yesterday was honestly one of the best feelings I've had in hockey," Neal said. "We said we wanted to follow it up again today and get a big win and go home a happy team, and we did that."

Incredibly, the Golden Knights are undefeated heading into their inaugural home opener against the Coyotes at T-Mobile Arena on Tuesday (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN360, TVA Sports, NHL.TV).

After the Los Angeles Kings and Oakland Seals each started 2-0 in 1967-68, 23 NHL expansion teams tried to repeat the feat. Each failed.

Then came Vegas.

Video: VGK@ARI: Schmidt nets loose puck to tie the game late

"The way we won two games too, staying with it and battling till the end to finally get those late goals and get the win is a good feeling," Fleury said.

Owner Bill Foley went to the U.S. Military Academy, home of the Army Black Knights, and named his team in that tradition. He wanted his team to embody the character of knights -- never giving up, never giving in, always advancing, never retreating.

This is a heck of a way to start establishing that identity.

The Stars outplayed the Golden Knights, outshooting them 35-18 through two periods. But Fleury was outstanding, allowing one goal on a deflection on the power play, allowing Neal to be the hero in the third period.

The Golden Knights outplayed the Coyotes, outshooting them 30-17 through two periods. Fleury was outstanding again, allowing one goal on a rebound, keeping the Golden Knights in the game when they could not finish, not even on a 5-on-3 advantage of 1:14 in the second period, not even on a 3-on-1 rush in the third period.

Finally, a rebound trickled to the left side of the Arizona net. The puck reached Schmidt in an awkward spot. He almost had to put his stick blade between his legs to shoot it toward an open net before Coyotes defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson could lunge into the lane.

"Honestly, I don't know if I got much on it," Schmidt said. "It was just one of those things that you just had to push as hard as you can and hope all those bench-press reps in the summer [would pay off]."

Video: VKG@ARI: Fleury blockers away Domi's wrister

They paid off. Tie game.

Fleury made two huge glove saves in overtime, one on Clayton Keller, one on Anthony Duclair.

Golden Knights forward David Perron played keep-away with Duclair and Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson in the offensive zone, protecting the puck, banking it off the end boards. 

Neal grabbed it on the left side of the net, stickhandled for a heartbeat and shot it past Coyotes goaltender Antti Raanta, just ahead of Ekman-Larsson's outstretched stick, with Coyotes center Derek Stepan looking on.

Game.

The Golden Knights mobbed Neal and each other. Amid the celebration, Fleury went to the other end of the ice and grabbed the puck.

Fleury played for the Pittsburgh Penguins from 2003-17. He watched them go from the worst team in the League to the best, winning the Stanley Cup in 2009, 2016 and 2017. He knows these are two games and only two games.

"We know we still have some work to do, and we still have to keep improving as a team, keep getting to know each other on the ice, get used to each other," Fleury said. "Still a work in progress."

But he also knows these are moments and mementos to savor. Neal didn't get to keep the pucks he put into the net in the first game because they went to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Fleury flipped this puck to Neal in the locker room.

"Well, he gets his third one, I guess," Fleury said with a smile. "One day later. So it's not too bad."

Not bad. Not bad at all.

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