Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017 | 1:20 a.m.
Within a five-minute span Tuesday night, Deryk Engelland was a catalyst behind the crowd tearing up with emotion and yelling out in euphoria at T-Mobile Arena.
The lone longtime local on the Vegas Golden Knights’ inaugural-season roster first touched the 18,191 fans in attendance with a speech to cap a pregame tribute to victims and first responders of last week’s mass shooting. Then he roused them with a scorching slap shot that zipped into the net at 4:18 of the first period.
The rare score from the usual defensive enforcer was part of a four-goal Golden Knights blitz in the opening 11 minutes, which led them to a 5-2 victory over the Arizona Coyotes in their home debut.
“The guys responded after a nice little ceremony and came out flying,” Engelland said. “To just get that lead and that cushion was a big thing.”
For those who had eagerly anticipated a major-league professional sports franchise coming to town for years, it was a performance well worth the wait. It only took two and a half minutes of game time before they could celebrate a goal, with Tomas Nosek receiving a perfectly placed pass from Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and rocketing the puck past Arizona goalie Antti Raanta.
Engelland’s only shot of the night came less than two minutes later. And then James Neal added his fourth and fifth goals of the young season, the first one on a turnaround and the second powered in after a crease pass from Reilly Smith.
“To be honest with you, I thought the start was going to be real hard for us,” Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant said. “I didn’t expect us to start like that. It was a complete reversal.”
The Golden Knights have defied expectations so far this young season. Pegged to be the worst team in the league, they instead stand alongside the St. Louis Blues and Toronto Maple Leafs as the only franchises to start 3-0 so far.
They’re also officially off to the best start ever by an expansion franchise, surpassing the 1967 Oakland Seals and Los Angeles Kings, which both went 2-0 but lost in their third game.
“Special night,” Neal said. “It was honestly unbelievable.”
Neal is now tied for second in the NHL in goals, behind only Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin. His second goal also broke an 0-for-11 start to the season for the Golden Knights’ power play.
They failed to score on their other two advantages, however, to now make the power play a still-troublesome 1-for-13 on the year.
“It’s not a big deal to me,” Gallant said. “We’re a work in progress. We’re working on it every day. They got a big goal tonight, and that will get them some confidence for sure.”
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is already overflowing with confidence. He had his third straight impressive showing, totaling 31 saves.
Gallant said Vegas was gassed by the third period, and the onus to keep it afloat fell on Fleury. The Coyotes got off 18 shots on goal in the third, as opposed to only 15 combined in the first two periods, but Fleury was on point.
During one Coyotes’ power play, he blocked five shots, including three rapid-fire from different directions. Arizona finally slipped one through on a hard-to-stop tipped shot from Kevin Connauton with six minutes remaining, which joined a first-period score from Tobias Rieder for its only goals.
“All of our players really believe in our goalie, and he’s been A-1 for the first three games and that’s what we expect of him,” Gallant said. “Marc is a great character person, and we know he’s a great goalie. He’s going to be the leader of the team.”
Fleury had a smile affixed both pre-game when he was introduced and post-game when he celebrated in the locker room. The players couldn’t hide their excitement for the atmosphere at the arena.
The frills extended into the intermissions, with Cirque du Soleil’s “O” performing in the first and the Golden Knights’ 12-man drum line accompanied by 3D visuals overtaking the ice in the second.
The players, of course, missed those touches of the game-day experience while in the locker room. Luckily for them, the reception they received from fans was more than enough.
“It was electrifying,” Engelland said. “If we can keep that crowd in it like that, it’s going to be an exciting place to play.”