AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker
Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Golden Knights players are well aware they have the NHL's best record. They just aren’t talking about it.
“How many games are left,” rookie forward Alex Tuch asked rhetorically. “A lot of them. It’s nice, but then again, who was in first place yesterday? Exactly. We’re not worried about it.”
Sporting an impressive record of 31-11-4 (66 points), the expansion Golden Knights have a points percentage of .717, which is higher than Tampa Bay's .712 percent. They are three points ahead of Nashville for the lead in the Western Conference, and eight ahead of San Jose for the Pacific Division.
“Honestly it hasn’t really been spoken about,” Vegas defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “We spoke about it right after the game and said these are the facts and this is where we are. In order to keep going you have to play the right way to continue it because a lot of teams are right there.”
The players realize their keen focus played a large role in getting to this point and know they must keep working to protect their lead. While some teams may struggle to stay hungry after such success, Schmidt believes the Golden Knights locker room is built for it.
“I just think you stick to being the kind of guy you are,” he said. “You continue to build on your strengths and understand what got you to where you are.”
A crucial element is the team’s driving force: coach Gerard Gallant.
“(Gallant) came into the locker room during the last game and said, ‘Hey guys, we’re up 3-1 but we need to get back to playing the way we want to play. Play the game the right way for the last 40 minutes,’” Schmidt said. “And I thought we did a pretty good job of that.”
The Golden Knights were built on players left unprotected by their former teams, and early on Gallant admitted he underestimated how much of a motivational factor that would be. Most players have now played their former teams at least once, but don’t expect the chip to fall off the Golden Knights’ shoulders in the second half of the season.
“We all know where we’re at and it’s gratifying for sure,” Gallant said. “Being in first place in the NHL is a great achievement, but that could change tonight. You have to make sure that you’re playing hard, playing well every night and getting points.”
That starts tonight at T-Mobile Arena where the Golden Knights host the Columbus Blue Jackets. It’s the first of a two-game homestand before the team heads back onto the road for a six-game trip.
“I don’t worry about having the best record in the NHL,” Gallant said. “I worry about the next game and controlling what we can control. If we keep winning games, the standings will take care of themselves.”
The Golden Knights outscored Carolina 2-0 in the last two periods of Sunday night’s 5-1 win. They’ll now have to apply that mentality to the second half of the season.
Carolina’s only goal came on a power play after Jonathan Marchessault initiated a fight with Hurricanes forward Elias Lindholm. Lindholm delivered a crushing hit against the boards on Schmidt, and Marchessault quickly sought to avenge his teammate.
Marchessault is the smallest player on the team at 5-foot-9, 174 pounds, while Lindholm is 6-foot-1, 192 pounds.
“It gets the boys fired up with the little guy getting out there and mixing it up,” Schmidt said while laughing. “These days there aren’t a lot of big bruisers running around and I guess (Marchessault) is a bruiser for us.”
It wasn’t the smartest play on Marchessault’s part, as he spent four minutes in the penalty box for roughing and cost his team a goal, but it made a statement.
“I think it shows the continuity of this locker room right now,” Schmidt said. “The way guys want to battle for each other.”
It’s a big reason why they’ve had so much success, and the reason they can continue it.
“We still have a lot of doubters and nonbelievers,” Tuch said, “but we all believe in this room.”