Entering this season, there was potential of the NHL’s newest team building up hatred for teams that didn’t quite return the favor.
Fast forward to April, and hey, the NHL is thinking about Vegas after all.
So when did the Vegas Golden Knights stop being a curiosity and start becoming a threat? Was it when they won their first two games on the road against Dallas and Arizona? How about when they blasted the Avalanche 7-0, bringing their record to 8-1-0? Perhaps it was when Marc-Andre Fleury returned to action to bolster a team that had managed to get to 19-9-1 without him? I imagine for most holdouts, it was during a stretch when the Golden Knights won 12 of 13 games heading into 2018, including two wins over the Nashville Predators and a victory against the defending champs.
My moment was slightly before that, on November 19, with Vegas sitting at 11-6-1. They’d just beaten Vancouver 5-2 but had conceded eight goals in an ugly loss to Edmonton. It was totally reasonable to wonder whether the Golden Knights could sustain their record. However, they skated into a much-anticipated matchup with the Los Angeles Kings and blitzed them. The Golden Knights posted their second-best shot total of the young season, along with their second-best shot margin, outshooting the Kings 40-29. Even more impressive, they controlled the play even after scoring three goals on their first nine shots, where another team might be expected to turtle. Only 30 straight saves from Darcy Kuemper kept it close.
Up to that point, Vegas had been a paper tiger. From that day on, they were a very real tiger. 40 days later, they came into LA and outplayed the Kings again, increasing their Pacific Division lead to three points with a 3-2 overtime win. That was as close as LA would get to the division lead for the remainder of the season. The upstarts had beaten the Kings in a home-and-home, and they’d go on to win the division title that has somehow managed to elude this iteration of the Kings. The rivalry was on, much earlier than anyone expected.
As Danny from Knights on Ice mentioned on yesterday’s Jewelcast, LA was always the most likely #1 rival for Vegas. While it’d be most convenient for the Arizona Coyotes to build a fierce desert rivalry to go with the existing Californian and Canadian hatred in the Pacific Division, there were two factors in the Kings’ favor. First, the existing Kings fandom in Vegas was strong. Fox Sports West and Prime Ticket were available in Las Vegas, meaning hockey fans could get their fill of either team, and the Kings’ regular Frozen Fury preseason game on the Strip gave the city’s hockey fans an event to get behind. More relevant, though, was the Kings’ recent playoff success, which has both increased their fanbase and increased the target on their back. Arizona is improving rapidly and might provide a stiff opponent for Vegas down the road. Right now, though? Vegas hockey fans wanted to beat LA really, really badly.
Our fans can't decide between "Go Knights Go" and "Beat LA" chants but we say let's go with both tonight— y - Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) February 28, 2018
This playoff draw is settling that issue for once and for all, though. We saw in 2012 and 2014 how one playoff series can escalate a rivalry. Arizona and LA fans still despise the guys on the other side of the ice in 2012, while the Kings-Ducks rivalry since the teams’ second-round matchup in 2014 has been miles more passionate than the one we saw before. The first (preseason) home game in Vegas history was against the Kings, so why not the first playoff series too? If the Golden Knights beat the Kings in the first round, they’ll do something Anaheim still hasn’t done, and they’ll ensure that this is a two-way rivalry. If the Kings beat the Golden Knights, Vegas fans will be even more ferocious going forward.
The Golden Knights didn’t need any more motivation, with a city behind them and the pure adrenaline of their first playoff appearance fueling them. The Kings didn’t either, with their experience and the fact that they’re an underdog against an expansion team. Regardless of how this all shakes out, though, there’s gonna be motivation for years to come. And if Jonathan Quick and David Perron finally drop the gloves for that emotionally charged, grapple-heavy, punch-free, ten-second fight we’ve all been waiting for... even better.