If you thought a December game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Vegas Golden Knights would end up pitting two of the NHL’s best teams, and would be one of the most exciting games of the season, you’re a fucking liar, get off my website, we don’t like liars here. If you’re as baffled by Vegas’s success as I am—and as intrigued, as the season goes on and they stay atop the standings, that it might not be so illusory—then hell yeah, let’s ride this baby as far as it’ll go.
The Lightning, with the NHL’s best record, came into Las Vegas riding a seven-game winning streak. The expansion Golden Knights, right there with the top teams in the West had won six of seven. The building had, no fooling, a playoff atmosphere.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper said: “I understand we’re coming in and there’s 45 wins combined by the two teams going into the game. But for game 33 between a Western Conference team and an Eastern Conference team, it felt like that game could be played in May and not December.”
Steven Stamkos and Vladislav Namestnikov gave the Lightning a 2-0 lead at the first intermission, but James Neal, having his best season at age 30, halved the deficit, and Marc-Andre Fleury, recently returned from missing 25 games with a concussion, kept things close with a series of saves in which he lost his mask:
Jonathan Marchessault, thriving in Vegas and perhaps showing that his 30-goal season in Florida last year was no fluke, evened things up after a beautiful cross-ice pass from David Perron. Erik Haula, who Vegas would be happy with even if they hadn’t received the revelatory Alex Tuch as a throw-in to draft him from Minnesota, gave the Golden Knights a 3-2 lead in the third. But Victor Hedman tied things with 3:56 remaining.
Both teams probably would’ve been content going to overtime and clinching at least a point. But Tampa took a penalty with 24 seconds left, and after a lengthy scrum down low—won by Neal and Perron—defenseman Shea Theodore capped a four-point night by putting home a one-timer from the point with 2.3 seconds left. Ladies and gentlemen, the Vegas Golden Knights have a signature moment:
Incredible. Vegas overcame a two-goal deficit against the league’s best team, and scored four power-play goals, and won it in the closing seconds. We know this team is fun to watch. We don’t know if they’re legit.
But they’ve played well enough for long enough that the bar for “legit” has changed. It’s risen. Vegas is now tied atop the Pacific, and I can’t believe I’m saying this: they’re probably going to make the playoffs. That alone would be an unreal accomplishment for an expansion team. They’ve been the beneficiaries of puck luck, but most first-place teams tend to be. They probably won’t finish on their current 114-point pace. But could they win a playoff series? That’s insane to even think about—this team was supposed to be so, so bad; I was so, so wrong—but I’m finding it very hard not to get caught up in the illogical thrill of the Golden Knights. So why fight it? I’m all in, for as long as this lasts.