It was about seven hours until faceoff. To the Vegas Golden Knights, it seemed like forever.
Owner Bill Foley had been waiting for this moment since the NHL awarded Las Vegas an expansion franchise June 22, 2016. General manager George McPhee had been waiting since he was hired July 13, 2016; coach Gerard Gallant since he was hired April 13; and many of the players since they were acquired in the NHL Expansion Draft on June 21.
Now they were about to play the Dallas Stars at American Airlines Center on Friday (8:30 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN360, TVA Sports, FS-SW, ATTSN-RM, NHL.TV) in the first regular-season game in franchise history.
“It’s a great day for our franchise,” Gallant said after the morning skate. “We’ve been looking forward to this day for a long time. …
“It’s just an exciting time. You want to get that game started. You want to start it right now.”
The Golden Knights as an organization are still focused on the long term more than their first game. Managing their assets in the wake of the NHL Expansion Draft, they had nine defensemen on the 23-man roster. They had a new backup goaltender, Malcom Subban, claimed on waivers from the Boston Bruins on Tuesday.
Vadim Shipachyov, expected to be their No. 1 center, and Shea Theodore, arguably one of their top six defensemen, were with Chicago of the American Hockey League, at least temporarily, because they could be assigned to the minors without being exposed to waivers while McPhee continued to work on trades.
But the Golden Knights as a team — the coach, the players — weren’t about to concede anything, even on their first game day, even against the Stars, considered a contender in the Western Conference. Forward James Neal, who did not play in the preseason while recovering from hand surgery, was set to debut. A roster spot opened when goaltender Calvin Pickard cleared waivers.
“We’ve got a lot of talented hockey players on our team, and I think we’re going to go into every game competing with any team that we play,” Gallant said. “The NHL’s a close league. I don’t think the teams from the top to the bottom … There’s not much difference. I think we’re going to have a good year, and we’re going to be right there.”
The Stars were careful to respect the Golden Knights. They know Gallant and the players from their previous NHL teams, even if they don’t know how they’ll fit together and perform for Vegas.
“There’s a lot of good NHL players on that team,” Stars coach Ken Hitchcock said. “There’s a tremendous amount of character on that team, and they’ve really focused on that, and there’s a lot of competitive guys there. So we just look at it as a good NHL team now with a lot more experience than I think people thought going in.”
Stars goaltender Ben Bishop looked back on when he played for the Tampa Bay Lightning and Gallant coached the Florida Panthers.
“I know they like to push the pace,” Bishop said. “They like to get those odd-man rushes. They’re pretty good down low. I kind of have an idea what to expect. But you never know out there, especially the first game. There will be some nerves that first 20 [minutes]. I think people will be flying around that first 20 minutes.”
If those first 20 minutes ever come.
“Everyone’s happy and excited, happy to be done with training camp and get things rolling,” Vegas forward Cody Eakin said. “Everyone’s worked hard to get to this point and ready to get out there.”