By Samantha Pell,
When the Vegas Golden Knights chose Nate Schmidt as their expansion-draft selection from the Washington Capitals in June, Capitals Coach Barry Trotz gave the defenseman a call.
Trotz, the Nashville Predators’ first coach when they began play as an expansion franchise in 1998, wanted to give the player a sense of what a unique, groundbreaking time it was.
“You’re going to be part of something very special,” Trotz told Schmidt. “It’s the only time probably in your career . . . that you are the first. And what you do, what stamp you put on that city or that group, that will be a bond forever.”
Fast forward to 2018, and the Golden Knights, headed by former Capitals general manager George McPhee, are one of the top teams in the NHL, far exceeding expectations for an expansion team. They are putting their own stamp on the city of Las Vegas — and the league — as they have already set the record for wins for an expansion team with 34, surpassing the mark set by both the Anaheim Ducks and Florida Panthers in the 1993-94 season.
“They are living the dream right now,” Trotz said Thursday. “They are [second in] the NHL as an ‘expansion team,’ as you would say. If you were a true expansion team you wouldn’t be on the top of the pile. You would be at the bottom of the pile.”
[Capitals’ T.J. Oshie fined $5,000 for cross-check against Penguins’ Kris Letang]
Capitals fans might remember the bottom of the pile. Washington finished its 1974-75 expansion season 8-67-5, the worst NHL season to date. The Golden Knights matched that win total after just three weeks.
The Pacific Division-leading Golden Knights come to Washington on Sunday for a matinee against the Metropolitan Division-leading Capitals at Capital One Arena. After a 5-2 loss to the Minnesota Wild on Friday, Vegas (34-13-4) sat just one point behind the Tampa Bay Lightning, which played late Saturday night, in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy, which goes to NHL’s best regular season team.
“It’s gone really well for them,” Capitals winger Brett Connolly said. “Every organization, they are going to go through some tough times, but they really haven’t had that yet, so I think this year they are just going to ride it right into the playoffs and then once you get in you never know. They definitely got a lot of good pieces, and if they do it right, they have a lot of draft picks that can really set themselves up for success.”
[Capitals’ second power-play unit is producing with limited opportunity]
Vegas beat the Capitals in their first meeting, 3-0, in December at the Golden Knights’ gleaming new T-Mobile Arena, located on the famous Las Vegas Strip. Center Jay Beagle said the Golden Knights, who scored all three goals in the first period, came out with more intensity than any team the Capitals have faced this season.
The Golden Knights’ style is fast and flashy, and watching them on their home ice is a party in itself, according to Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin.
“It’s like you [are] in a nightclub,” Ovechkin said at media day for the NHL All-Star Game last week. “It’s like a party. Everybody dancing over there. It’s like, ‘Holy Jesus, are we in a hockey game or is this like a pool party out there?’ They’re very, very tough to play against.”
That might help explain Vegas’s league-best 19-3-2 home record.
Ovechkin joked the Capitals’ home digs carry a different atmosphere, one that he hoped could make the Golden Knights “a little bit sleepy.”
The Golden Knights’ play to this point has been anything but. Trotz noted they have “three legitimate scoring lines” and are led by 27-year-old center Jonathan Marchessault (18 goals, 30 assists), who was a 30-goal scorer last season for Florida in his breakout campaign before being made available to Vegas in the expansion draft.
Winger David Perron, an 11-year veteran who came off the St. Louis Blues roster, has 13 goals and 33 assists.
“They’re a proud group,” Trotz said. “They play as one unit. They’re relentless. They find ways to win. And there’s no pressure on them. It’s all gravy. They just play. They’ve been playing with house money from day one, really. Everyone looked at that team and said, ‘They might make the playoffs.’ ”
Note: Capitals forward T.J. Oshie has been fined $5,000 by the NHL for cross-checking Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang on Friday night. The fine, which was announced Saturday morning by the NHL department of player safety, is the maximum allowed by the league’s collective bargaining agreement.