The Golden Knights did not think they would be playing tonight. Not after they went up 3-1 in their series against the San Jose Sharks. Not after they had 59 shots on goal in Game 6 at home. Not after they went on the power play in double overtime.
But here they are. They’ll skate at SAP Center this morning like an ordinary game, then take the ice at 7 p.m. for a game that is anything but ordinary. It’s the biggest game of the season, and short of last year’s Stanley Cup Final, one of the biggest in this franchise’s young history.
For the first time, the Golden Knights will play a Game 7.
“Everybody knows there’s no tomorrow after tomorrow,” Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant said Monday. “Win the hockey game, you move on. If you lose you’re done for the summer.”
This game has meaning beyond advancing in the playoffs. The rivalry has become vitriolic, featuring a fight between longtime rivals and a suspension of a Hall of Famer. It’s had the storylines, from the rise and fall of Vegas’ best line, to the redemption of an embattled San Jose goalie to Tomas Hertl’s guaranteeing a Game 7.
Vegas has had a team for fewer than two full seasons, and yet there is genuine dislike between the Golden Knights and Sharks. It’s gone from budding rivalry to one of the best in the league.
“We’re confident in the group we have here. We’re a confident group and a great hockey team,” Vegas forward Jonathan Marchessault said after Sunday’s game. “Just have to keep going and stick with it. I think if we keep playing the right way, like we did tonight, I think we’ll get rewarded.”
It’s in games like this where the skill of a coach comes into play. It’s not only about getting his team fired up to play, but making the right lineup decisions. After a four-hour marathon in Game 6, Gallant must weigh getting fresh legs onto the ice versus throwing a guy into action who hasn’t played in weeks.
All but four Golden Knights — Colin Miller, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Ryan Reaves and William Carrier — played their season-high in ice time, and many by significant margins. It may make sense to try to slide Ryan Carpenter, Brandon Pirri or even Nikita Gusev into a forward spot, and perhaps Nick Holden draws into the defense.
“We’re going to think about that today for sure, it’s definitely a possibility,” Gallant said. “I think if a guy jumps into our lineup he’s going to be real excited and real happy, and we’ve got some good players that haven’t played yet.”
There’s also the fact that the Golden Knights were the better team in every measure except the score in Game 6. If Vegas plays like that in Game 7, none of the lineup changes or between-game adjustments will matter that much and the Golden Knights will be prepping for their second-round series with the Colorado Avalanche.
But maybe things happen like they did in Game 6. And then suddenly the Golden Knights, who were the Stanley Cup favorite as recently as Sunday afternoon, will be prepping for a long offseason of wondering how it all went so wrong.
“It’s a battle series — it’s two good teams facing off against each other,” goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. “We are ready to go, and we will be ready to go next game. I’m sure they will be ready to go, and it’ll be another battle.”