Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and forward James Neal are the biggest names and were selected for the 2018 Honda NHL All-Star Game in Tampa on Jan. 28 (3:30 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVA Sports).
But they represent a collection of castoffs that has set records for expansion teams, going 29-10-2 for 60 points through 41 games, the first half of their inaugural season.
The Golden Knights rank first in the Western Conference and second in the NHL in point percentage (.732) entering their game against the Edmonton Oilers at T-Mobile Arena on Saturday (10 p.m. ET; CBC, SN, ATTSN-RM, NHL.TV).
“The success of our team came as a group,” Fleury said Friday. “It wasn’t, like, one or two guys. I think everybody’s been chipping in — different guys, different nights. The work ethic that we show every night as a team, I think that’s what’s brought our success to us.”
Owner Bill Foley set out to build an organization of no-ego people with all-for-one, one-for-all attitudes. General manager George McPhee built his staff and roster with that in mind.
Though the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft was designed to make the Golden Knights more competitive than past expansion teams, McPhee still had to choose from players the other 30 teams exposed.
The thought was Fleury, a three-time Stanley Cup champion with the Pittsburgh Penguins, would be the face of the Golden Knights and have to carry them most nights.
Coach Gerard Gallant openly wondered how much Vegas would score. Neal, a one-time 40-goal scorer, seemed his most potent shooter.
Guess what? The Golden Knights thrived in the first half even though Fleury missed two months with a concussion and Neal was not their leading scorer.
Goaltender Malcolm Subban, claimed on waivers from the Boston Bruins on Oct. 3, has played more games (14) than Fleury has (12). He has gone 11-2-0 with a 2.38 goals-against average and .918 save percentage.
Forward William Karlsson leads the Golden Knights in goals with 22. Forward David Perron leads them in assists with 25. Forward Jonathan Marchessault leads them in points with 40. So many others have been excellent, from forward Reilly Smith to forward Erik Haula to defenseman Nate Schmidt.
They have no one in the top 25 in scoring, but five players with double-digit goal totals and eight with more than 20 points. They rank second in goals per game (3.44).
“We’re a hard-working team, and guys like each other, and they’re having a lot of fun out there,” Gallant said. “When you’re winning, guys play for each other and they work hard for each other. So there’s no selfish guys on our hockey team, and that’s the way we want to keep it.”
Karlsson and Marchessault could have been selected for the All-Star Game.
“There’s a lot of guys that are more than deserving of going to the game,” Neal said.
Not that Fleury and Neal aren’t deserving, though.
Back at the beginning, back when no one saw this coming, back when the Golden Knights hadn’t developed their identity, they played their first game, at the Dallas Stars on Oct. 6. They were outshot 35-18 through two periods. But it was 1-0 thanks to Fleury. Neal scored the first two goals in Vegas history in the third. Fleury finished with 45 saves and got the first win in Golden Knights history, 2-1.
They played their second game the next night at the Arizona Coyotes. Fleury made two huge glove saves in overtime, and then Neal scored the first overtime goal in Vegas history. They won 2-1 again.
They came home to a city reeling from the worst mass shooting in American history, and after an emotional ceremony honoring the first responders and 58 people killed on the Strip on Oct. 1, they defeated the Coyotes 5-2 in their inaugural home opener Oct. 10. Neal scored twice. Fleury made 31 saves.
The team jelled from there.
“Very quickly,” Fleury said. “A little surprising, I think, but it’s great for our team. The bond came real quick. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Neal has 18 goals, including four game-winners. Fleury is 9-2-1 with a 1.73 goals-against average and .945 save percentage.
“It’s been an unbelievable experience right from day one, right from being picked for the team, being part of the Expansion Draft, hearing your name get picked and the cheer, and know you’re going to go to Las Vegas and be a part of the first professional sports team there,” Neal said. “The way everything’s gone has been pretty special. Right after the first game, I said it’s definitely something I’ll never forget.”
Perhaps the All-Star Game will be too.