Ross D. Franklin / AP
Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Through the first two weeks of the NHL season, one of the biggest mysteries of the league is how the Golden Knights keep winning.
Already off to the best start in expansion history, a win tonight against the St. Louis Blues could vault the Golden Knights back into first place in the Western Conference.
“I think it’s a great start,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said prior to the Golden Knights' home opener on Oct. 10. At that point, the team was 2-0. “My tongue is in my cheek and I’m a little nervous because if the team plays too well there may be a number of other teams that will be questioning how good of an expansion draft we gave the Golden Knights.”
Four games later and the team is still winning. The biggest factor could be the lack of expectations.
“I think it really comes down to not having any pressure on you,” defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “You just go out and play and there are no expectations. When guys don’t have pressure and they’re just going out and playing loose, that’s when guys play their best.”
Schmidt has felt the pressure of high expectations. The 26-year-old played four seasons in Washington prior to coming to Las Vegas. In the last three years, the Capitals finished the regular season with more than 100 points and were heavy favorites heading into the playoffs only to be ousted in the second round each time.
“We were expected to win every game,” Schmidt said. “We were expected to get to the Stanley Cup every year, and that can be tough. If you don’t play well you feel the pressure and you feel the heat.”
The effect is multiplied because opponents playing the Golden Knights face the pressure of not losing to an expansion team. They play tight, and that has led to Vegas winning much sooner than anticipated.
“You come in as a first-year team and the expectations are to go out, compete and try to be the best we can but there’s no pressure,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “We come to the rink every day and work hard and have fun.”
Gallant’s player-friendly coaching style has a lot to do with it. The first-year coach said he doesn’t like to put pressure on players because he believes it can hinder their performance.
“I think it definitely makes things easier,” defenseman Colin Miller said. “Guys are playing loose, but it also comes from the coaching staff. They give us a ton of support. They make you feel confident. It’s easy when you feel that confidence behind you.”
The team’s easy-going mentality is visible at practice, where the players laugh and joke with each other throughout.
“You have to keep it light on the ice because it’s a long season,” Schmidt said. “There are 82 games and more than 100 practices, so you have to keep your mind right. Your mind is what gets your body going and gets you ready for games. To be able to decompress your mind a little on the ice while still getting your work in is a great balance to have.”
As for talent on the ice, the Golden Knights clearly lack the upper-echelon stars at the top of the lineup, but make up for it in solid third- and fourth-line players who are actually more talented than most teams.
“I think that our roster here is a lot more compact,” Schmidt said. “Our bottom is a lot higher. Our top may not have the same ceiling, but we have a good mix of hardworking guys, guys who can still make plays and have skill in this league, and guys who are willing to do whatever it takes to win.”
The fact that newcomers like Alex Tuch and Vadim Shipachyov only cracked the lineup after injuries to Erik Haula and Jonathan Marchessault shows the roster's depth. Highly rated prospects Shea Theodore, Tyler Wong and Tomas Hyka still have yet to be called up from the American Hockey League but would be playing for some teams.
“Having the versatility to throw guys in like that when a guy like Haula gets hurt is outstanding,” Schmidt said. “Not a lot of teams have that luxury of having guys like that to fill in.”