LAS VEGAS -- A year ago, when Max Pacioretty was captain of the Montreal Canadiens, he would know when the Vegas Golden Knights were playing at T-Mobile Arena in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He would make sure to turn on the television early.
"My kids loved it," he said. "'Is Vegas playing tonight?' They couldn't wait to watch the show."
Now he can't wait to be part of it, from the over-the-top theatrics to the high-level hockey.
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Pacioretty and fellow newcomers Paul Stastny and Mark Stone will have central roles on the rebuilt second line when the Golden Knights play the San Jose Sharks in the best-of-7 Western Conference First Round, starting with Game 1 at SAP Center on Wednesday (10:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVAS2, NBCSCA, ATTSN-RM).
The Golden Knights made a magical run to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season of 2017-18. But after they lost to the Washington Capitals in five games, general manager George McPhee set out to improve the roster. An issue had been the two-way play of the second line.
Forwards James Neal and David Perron left as unrestricted free agents. The Golden Knights signed Stastny as an unrestricted free agent July 1 and acquired Pacioretty in a trade with the Canadiens on Sept. 9. Stastny and Pacioretty had chemistry on and off the ice, as close friends who had played for the United States together, and were smart, two-way players.
For a while, things didn't go as planned. Stastny played three games, then missed 30 with an injury. Pacioretty was in and out of the lineup in the first half, missing 13 games with injuries, never getting into a rhythm.
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Finally, in January, they were in the lineup together and started clicking the way everyone envisioned. And then, just before the NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 25, with the Golden Knights in a 3-9-1 funk, McPhee added another smart, two-way player, acquiring Stone in a trade with the Ottawa Senators.
"It gave everybody a boost," coach Gerard Gallant said. "It gave everybody that belief that, 'You know what? We're as good as anybody.'"
The Golden Knights went on a 10-1-1 run. The top line of Jonathan Marchessault (four goals, eight assists), William Karlsson (four goals, eight assists) and Reilly Smith (seven goals, eight assists) came alive. Stastny (three goals, nine assists), Stone (four goals, four assists) and Pacioretty (four goals, three assists) were excellent. Cody Eakin (four goals, one assist) and Alex Tuch (three goals, three assists) slotted on the third line, making Vegas deeper and more dangerous.
"We had a little bit of a slump there before the deadline," goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. "It just felt like when [Stone] came, it just gave us a little boost, a little wakeup for everybody. He's obviously a very good player, right? Does a lot of good little things out there. But I think everybody else stepped up their game a bit, and we started playing the way we should and we could."
Video: VGK@SJS: Stone buries Smith's feed for PPG
Pacioretty, Stastny and Stone complement each other well and play a style that should translate to the playoffs. Their first mindset is to get the puck back, forechecking, supporting each other defensively. When they have the puck, they make a lot of short passes and give-and-go plays.
"The more puck possession we have, the better we play," Stastny said. "There are certain players than can get away with not doing anything for 59 minutes, and all of a sudden they get two shots, they score two goals. If we could do that, it would be nice. But at the same time, it wouldn't feel like we played a good game. For us, playing a good game is creating those scoring chances and creating that momentum. ...
"In playoffs, the game's not as open. The more puck possession you have, the more you're making the other team defend. That's always the biggest thing. You put up more offense like that, but how do you keep the other team from not scoring? I think you make them defend."
Pacioretty missed three games down the stretch because of injuries. Stastny missed two. The Golden Knights finished the regular season 1-5-2 in their last eight. But the stretch after the trade deadline showed what they can do.
"When we're playing our best hockey, we feel like we can compete with anybody in this League and ultimately beat anybody in this League," Stone said. "When we're playing our best hockey, we're protecting pucks, we're making them come 200 feet, and we're using our speed and our gap to our advantage."
Make sure you turn on your television early to watch the show.
"The way that the guys built something last year," Stone said, "I just want to be a part of that and help build something special here in Vegas."