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September 25, 2018

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Golden Knights staying loose, having fun early in playoff ride

Vegas goes for the sweep over Los Angeles tonight at Staples Center

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AP Photo/Chris Carlson

Vegas Golden Knights center Cody Eakin (21) celebrates after scoring against the Los Angeles Kings during the third period of Game 3 of an NHL hockey first-round playoff series in Los Angeles, Sunday, April 15, 2018.

Every NHL player has the memory.

Playing hockey as a kid — whether it’s on a frozen pond or on the street— counting down the seconds aloud, pretending to shoot a game-winning goal in overtime of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The puck rattles off something like the inside of the metal trash can, and its echoes are only drowned out by cheers simulating fans’ euphoria.

Through three games of the playoffs, the Golden Knights players are living the fantasy.

“This is what you dream of and that’s why you play this game is to be in situations like this,” defenseman Nate Schmidt said.

The Golden Knights have built a 3-0 lead over the Kings, and can sweep their Pacific Division rivals in game 4, which starts at 7:30 tonight in Los Angeles. The first three games have been electrifying, with each having been decided by only a goal.

Game 2 nearly extended into the next morning before Erik Haula’s double-overtime winner finally ended it. Game 3 required a third-period comeback effort to stun the Kings in their own building.

“Every game is a must win and it’s intense, but the feeling you get after winning those games is such a fun feeling,” goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. You want to have it every night, every time you play.”

The playoffs are intense, but Vegas players have found small moments to enjoy the ride along the way.

“It’s a fun time of year,” defenseman Brayden McNabb said. “Everyone likes the playoffs and it’s been a tight series with one-goal games. It’s been a lot of fun to be a part of, and especially fun to be on the right side of it.”

Monday was an off-day for the team, and while a few players skated inside Staples Center, the majority of the team enjoyed the Southern California weather just outside of it. The players formed a circle in the plaza next to the Kings’ statue celebrating their Stanley Cup championships and juggled a soccer ball.

“It keeps our group light,” Schmidt said. “The sunshine is nice to get a little sweat on. You wanna be able to have fun with people that you like being around. That’s what has made our group great. You want to have fun the guys and you want to win with your best friends.”

Vegas and Los Angeles have played the tightest games of what’s been perhaps the NHL’s most physically demanding series, but the Golden Knights are reveling in it.

Fleury has won three Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh, but has found a new enjoyment with his Vegas teammates.

“It is different,” Fleury said. “I can’t say I didn’t have fun in Pittsburgh because I had a lot of good times, but we are only three games into this run. Nobody really saw us here early in the season so to have proven people wrong and being part of this team has been a lot of fun. I’m very happy and proud of the success we’ve had.”

The Golden Knights were thrown together from scratch less than a year ago, but already have a team chemistry as strong (or stronger) than some teams across the NHL.

“You can be on teams where you might have a good team, but when you have guys that you have a connection with away from the rink it means that much more,” Schmidt said.

One more win and the Golden Knights will move onto the Western Conference semifinals, where they would await the winner of the series between the Anaheim Ducks and the San Jose Sharks.

Their ultimate goal is still ahead of them, but that doesn’t prevent them from taking in the journey. It’s just like playing outside when they were kids, except the opposition is a little tougher.

“It’s much harder than you imagine it,” Schmidt said, laughing. “It’s much more taxing. You think guys will be floating around out there and high stepping and having a great time, and it would be an easy game. It’s not so much that. It’s a lot tougher on the body, but it is still a lot of fun.”

Jesse Granger can be reached at 702-259-8814 or [email protected]. Follow Jesse on Twitter at twitter.com/JesseGranger_.

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