LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone walked down the mirrored hallway at T-Mobile Arena with the Stanley Cup in a familiar spot by now — held high above his head.
He skated through a plume of smoke and the giant knight helmet, then took the trophy for one more victory lap around the ice as the Las Vegas crowd serenaded him and his teammates with cheers. He placed the Cup on a table next to a giant slot machine and pulled the handle.
Ping! Ping! Ping! Three Stanley Cups stretched across the screen, and out came the championship banner. It was the final hurrah to a summer of celebration that stretched right up until moments before the title defense began.
It doesn’t get more Vegas than this.
Mark Stone hit the jackpot pic.twitter.com/lTlYubh6n2
— Jesse Granger (@JesseGranger_) October 11, 2023
As the banner slowly climbed into the rafters, the entire Vegas roster peered up at it. Every player in the lineup Tuesday had their name etched on the Stanley Cup this summer. It’s rare to bring back nearly the identical roster after a title run, especially in the salary-cap era. Vegas became the first team to ice an entire roster of players from the previous championship since the 2012-13 Los Angeles Kings.
That’s bad news for the rest of the NHL.
After a slow start following the pregame festivities, the Golden Knights quickly found their game and controlled Seattle en route to a 4-1 victory on opening night. Perhaps most impressive, Vegas showed nearly all of the traits that made it a championship-caliber roster the previous year.
The Golden Knights flexed their muscles, bullying the Kraken out of the center of the ice in the offensive zone. They used their long, rangy forwards to pressure Seattle on the forecheck, leading to giveaways and quick goals. They leaned on goaltender Adin Hill for timely saves, but protected the crease well. They followed the same recipe that led to many playoff victories on the way to last year’s championship.
“It was pretty simple,” Stone said. “That’s kind of been our MO. Yeah, we have a lot of great players in this locker room, but if you can be great at the simple things, and be great at a lot of different things, you’re going to win a lot of hockey games.”
Vegas’ best players looked the part. Stone baited the Kraken into giveaways, and transitioned his clever defensive plays into instant offense. Jack Eichel flew up and down the ice with the puck on a string. Jonathan Marchessault attacked the net and scored with pressure on the forecheck. Chandler Stephenson and Ivan Barbashev used their speed to get behind Seattle’s defense for goals on the rush. Alex Pietrangelo, Brayden McNabb, Shea Theodore and Nicolas Hague patrolled the defensive zone, allowing almost nothing from the slot all night.
The Kraken are dangerous offensively and will score a lot of goals this year. They skate well and make plays when given the space, but on Tuesday night the Golden Knights neutralized Seattle’s top players with tight checking in the neutral zone and pressure from all angles. It’s what made Vegas so difficult to play against at even strength a season ago, and it appears to have rolled over straight into the new year.
After years of chasing a title, the Golden Knights are now embracing the target painted on their backs this season.
“We’re going to get everyone saying, ‘They’re the cream of the division, the cream of the conference, the cream of the league. We better be ready to go,’” Cassidy said. “That’s part of being a champion. It’s actually good pressure to have. It forces you to be ready.”
The Kraken opened the game with their best punch, living in the Golden Knights zone early and registering the first four shots on goal. Hill stood strong in net, turning away a few dangerous chances, then Vegas answered with a counterattack and a goal by Stephenson on their first shot of the game. Marchessault and Barbashev added goals, and the score was 3-0 before the Kraken threatened again.
“If your goal is to be the elite team of the league, an elite team of the decade, whatever you want to call it, then you have to be ready (to get each team’s best shot),” Cassidy said Monday. “The Montreal Canadiens went through it years ago. The Edmonton Oilers when they were on top. They wanted it. You could tell. The tougher the game got for them, the more they rose up. I think what I like about our group is we’re a very competitive group.”
Transitioning from the hunters to the hunted isn’t always easy, but the Golden Knights have embraced it.
“That’s how I hope they feel,” Cassidy said of his players. “Hey, we’re elite. We’re going to be considered elite. So bring it on.”
There’s no denying that winning changes players’ mindsets. Their yearning for a title isn’t any weaker, it’s just different.
“I mean, I guess the pressure of winning it isn’t as (strong), since we have won, but it’s a different kind of feel,” William Karlsson said following the game. “It was so fun, and it was so worth it to go through those four rounds and battle. It was worth it. I don’t think it’s hard for us to be motivated and do it again.”
The Golden Knights paraded the Cup around the globe all summer and capped it off with a week of celebrations leading up to Tuesday’s opener. The players received their championship rings at a team dinner on Sunday. They were honored during the Raiders’ Monday Night Football game at Allegiant Stadium the following night. Finally, Tuesday marked the last of the celebration with the raising of the banner.
“It’s addicting,” Stone said of winning it all. “I want to do it again. I think everybody in this room wants to do it again. But it starts with 82 games. You can say you want to do it again, but if you don’t play well during the season you won’t give yourself a sniff. We have 82 games to get going, and it started with one tonight.”
It was just one game, but it was the perfect start to the title defense. The Golden Knights flaunted the same strengths that carried them last year. They showed flashes of improvement in their weakest areas, like on special teams. Vegas didn’t score on the power play but generated plenty of looks. The penalty kill was excellent all night and included a five-minute kill in the third period to seal the victory.
Tuesday night was about putting a bow on last season’s championship and beginning the long, arduous task of doing it again. The Golden Knights succeeded on both counts. The pregame celebrations were appropriately over-the-top, special and shared with the record-breaking Las Vegas crowd. The game followed the same script that has led to many Golden Knights victories.
“It’s a memory now,” Stone said. “Just a great memory. Some of the most fun hockey we’ll ever play. It gives us a sense of urgency. We want to be back there. We know it’s not going to be given to us. You have to play 82 games to give yourself an opportunity to compete for the Stanley Cup, and it started tonight.”
(Photo: Candice Ward / Getty Images)