LM Otero / AP
Friday, Oct. 6, 2017 | 10 p.m.
DALLAS — As Golden Knights forward James Neal flipped the puck from his knees — over a diving goaltender and toward the net — he didn’t have time to watch where it landed.
Neal crashed face-first into the end boards, but just before the collision he caught a glimpse of the fans through the plexiglass. Their agonized faces, halfway covered by their hands in disgust, told Neal his shot had found the back of the net.
The eventual game-winning goal gave the Golden Knights a 2-1 victory in their first game in franchise history Friday night in Dallas, but, more important, it put a collective smile on fans back at home.
“I’m glad we could just give people something to be happy about,” Neal said. “We went and saw the first responders and are just doing everything we can to help uplift this city and this community.”
Neal attended the Route 91 Harvest Festival last Friday and planned on returning Sunday.
“I got a text Sunday night that I was skating by myself in the morning so I didn’t end up going,” Neal said. “Having friends there at the concert and what happened is just sickening. My prayers go out to everyone affected.”
Neal missed attending the concert on the night of what would become the deadliest shooting in modern U.S. history because he was busy rehabbing his hand. The winger had surgery in July after breaking his hand in last year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, and only began handling a puck a week ago.
“I honestly didn’t think I’d be starting the season,” Neal said. “I just wanted to try to do everything I could to be a part of the first game with this team.”
Neal not only scored the spectacular game-winning goal, but also the first goal in team history earlier in the third period.
“He’s probably going to be pretty tired tomorrow morning, but he played well and he can capitalize on those chances and that’s what a goal scorer does,” coach Gerard Gallant said.
The Stars outshot Vegas 46-30, but Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was nearly unbeatable between the pipes.
“Fleury stole that hockey game for us,” Gallant said. “He was outstanding. He made some great saves for us and he kept us in it.”
Fleury finished with an impressive 45 saves, only beaten by a shot that was tipped on the way to the goal by Tyler Seguin late in the second period.
“It was great to get that first game under our belt and to win makes it even more special,” Gallant said. “We played a great hockey team tonight, so we can look back and say we played one of the better teams in the league, in my opinion, and played toe-to-toe with them all night.”
The turning point in the game may have come when Stars’ starting goalie Ben Bishop was injured when a puck hit him in the mask. Bishop, who had saved all 12 of the shots he faced to that point, left the game bleeding from his face and was replaced by Kari Lehtonen.
Lehtonen surrendered the two goals to Neal and the Golden Knights completed the unlikely come-from-behind victory. The former Nashville Predator has 238 career goals, including one in last season’s Stanley Cup Finals, but says the two he scored Friday night were equally important.
“Those are up there with the best of them,” Neal said. “I know it’s just the first game of the year but just seeing how happy guys were and how excited everyone was to start the season with a new team with a fresh start.”
The Dallas Stars provided a moment of solidarity before the game when their players skated across the rink, and stood behind the Golden Knights during the national anthem. Players know the win is relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things happening back at home.
“It’s not a happy ending yet because a lot of people are still suffering,” Fleury said. “But for us to be out there and win the first game, I think the guys worked hard all game to get that win. Hopefully that makes all of the people in Las Vegas proud of us.”
There isn’t a city at the moment that needed something to celebrate more than Las Vegas, and in their first-ever game the Golden Knights delivered.