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It was 4:30 p.m., and the puck wouldn’t be dropped for another two hours. But the Jersey People already had gathered for the latest installment of Hockey Night in Las Vegas.

This is not a reference to puckheads who hail from New Jersey, though with the Rangers in town on Sunday, there was no shortage of those. They jammed into the bars and bistros that form a 100-proof corridor from The Park to T-Mobile Arena, home of the first-place (!) Golden Knights.

I’m talking about everybody who had a belly or some other body part pressed to the bar that was wearing a hockey sweater.

It was as if The Park had been transformed into the sixth New York borough. What a scene. Rangers jerseys easily outnumbered those of the Knights, but that was to be expected. The Rangers have been around since 1926; the Knights have been around since October.

There were a lot of Messiers and Lundqvists trying to forecheck their way into Beerhaus, situated in the neutral zone of the bars and bistros. There were no Vanbiesbroucks.

Closer to faceoff, the Messiers and Lundqvists were joined by the Fleurys and Karlssons. It was a helluva party. It was sort of like young Tom Cruise’s house when his parents went on vacation, minus Rebecca De Mornay and her gal pals.

‘You guys are the best’

Offering nearly a dozen watering holes and dining patios, none of which ever freeze over, The Park provides a perfect backdrop for a Golden Knights pregame party.

At Beerhaus, beyond the picnic tables on the promenade and out by the cornhole pits and the giant Golden Knights Connect Four game, Knights fan Ryan Francis was making merry with three guys and a woman wearing Rangers jerseys, one of which was his son, Collin.

“It doesn’t matter where you come from, when you come here, we all get along,” said the elder Francis, who grew up a Rangers fan.

“It’s Vegas, so it’s a little different than any other place,” Chuck Tarantino of West Caldwell, New Jersey, said about the hockey vibe around T-Mobile Arena compared to the one at Madison Square Garden.

Wife Susan was impressed with the hospitality and demeanor of Knights fans. “You guys are the best, you’re really nice people.”

So, not like Flyers fans at all.

To paraphrase that Under Armour commercial, this is our haus, but we’ll save you a seat at the bar.

Official Knights party haus

“Beerhaus is the official pregame fanfest for the Golden Knights, so we (do) a lot of marketing for that,” said Anthony Olheiser, The Park’s executive director, who was not wearing a hockey jersey and thus stuck out like a goaltender’s sore thumb. “It’s a great opportunity to let people all over the country know that we’re here and hockey is for real.”

Olheiser said the idea was to have fans go to a hockey game and have a party break out, but he never envisioned a soiree such as this.

“Having the team play so well, it’s been a monster year for us,” he said. “Having the locals and the away teams come, it’s just been huge. Every game it gets bigger. We have drink specials, we have Golden Knight Ale, we’ve got 80 beers inside, and 30 on draft.”

Who needs the checking line when you have 80 beers inside and 30 on tap?

By the time musical group Vegas Saints started their second set of familiar 1980s pop tunes, it appeared thirsty Rangers fans had sampled at least 65 of the 80, and all the drafts. It was much the same when Nashville was here Tuesday, when Vegas Saints performed a rollicking hat trick of “Jessie’s Girl,” “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” and “My Girl.” Even Predators fans raised on the Grand Ole Opry tapped their toes.

Sunday’s hockey party built to a crescendo as the Knight Line beat their flashing drums and the Knights’ cheerleaders waved their pompoms during a procession through The Park. Those at the bars and bistros were encouraged to join the parade. A guy wearing a Syracuse Bulldogs jersey nearly tripped over the big toe of the 40-foot sculpture of the blissful dancer where The Park opens to Toshiba Plaza.

Chance the gila monster, the Knights’ sometimes maligned mascot, led the Knight Line and the cheerleaders into the arena.

It had been such a great party that nobody wearing a Messier jersey made fun of his costume.

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Vegas Golden Knights

Vegas Golden Knights

Jonathan Quick’s teammates expect him to stop just about everything that comes his way, and for the first few weeks of this season he lived up to those expectations as he backstopped the impressive start that lifted the Kings atop the Pacific Division.

But they’ve been allowing too many dangerous shots to come his way the last two weeks, and when he has a less than stellar night, as he did Sunday in a 4-2 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights in front of a lively sellout crowd at T-Mobile Arena, the result is going to be ugly.

“I think we’ve relied on Quickie a bit too much over the past six games,” left wing Tanner Pearson said after the Kings lost for the fifth time in their last six games. “He’s been doing his part, and we’ve got to step up and do ours and help him out.”

Quick was replaced by Darcy Kuemper after he yielded three goals on nine shots in the teams’ first regular-season meeting, which showed promise of becoming a fierce rivalry.

A defensive breakdown allowed William Karlsson to slip a shot between Quick’s pads 55 seconds into the game, Cody Eakin beat him to the short side to finish off a two on one at 9:21, and a miscommunication between Quick and defenseman Derek Forbort behind the net allowed Reilly Smith to swoop in and set up Karlsson for the third goal, at 11:22.

“The first 10 minutes we were not ready to go,” defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “We put ourselves in a hole, and it’s tough to win games when you’re down 3-0 in the first 10 minutes.”

The Kings got within 3-2 on a second-period goal by Trevor Lewis and a third-period shot from the hash marks by Pearson for his fourth goal this season, but they were down too much too early to pull even in their fifth game in eight days and second game in two days. The Golden Knights, who trail the division-leading Kings by one point and have two games in hand, clinched the victory on an empty-net goal by Alex Tuch with 62 seconds left in the third period, leading Kings defenseman Drew Doughty to smash his stick against the goalpost.

Vegas is smashing the stereotype of the hapless expansion team, compiling an 8-1 record at home and competing hard as a team despite having to go to Plan E in its goaltending strategy book. Maxim Lagace, fourth on the depth chart, stopped 27 shots in front of a crowd that included nearly as many Kings supporters as fans of the Golden Knights.

“They showed why they’re a good team at home,” Pearson said.

The Kings showed they haven’t found the right balance between capitalizing on the offensive freedom that coach John Stevens has given them and consistently maintaining their defensive foundation. They were too defense-oriented in the later stages of Darryl Sutter’s coaching tenure but often have gotten too sloppy defensively in the early days under Stevens.

“I think when we’re playing well we’re checking, and checking leads to offensive chances instead of these turnovers and odd-man rushes going back the other way,” said Lewis, who scored on a backhander at 8:35 of the second period after Alex Iafallo kept the puck in the zone. “I just think we need to get back to more of our structured game. Just regroup and refocus.”

Even when they were winning they were giving up a lot of prime scoring chances but they could rely on Quick to be sharp. He wasn’t sharp Sunday, when his personal losing streak stretched to five. He has an .894 save percentage in that span.

“It’s the obvious. Those are pucks he’d love to have back. But it’s a team game. Johnny’s bailed us out many a nights,” Stevens said of his No 1 goalie. “It’s certainly not the start we wanted. You dig a hole on the road against any team, especially in here, it’s tough to come back, but I thought the guys did. I thought they got going. We climbed back in the game, we had some chances there. … That was probably the worst-case scenario for that start for us because it’s the end of the week, and if we just got through the first 10 minutes, I thought we’d be in pretty good shape.”

Quick said he wasn’t especially angry because the Kings lost to a division rival — he’s angry when he loses, no matter the circumstances.

“We lost a game. We’ve got another one in a couple days and we’ll get ready for that,” he said.

He and the Kings will have to be better prepared for that game, Wednesday at home against Winnipeg, than they were Sunday.

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The Golden Knights

The Golden Knights

This evening was supposed to be one of celebration in Las Vegas, the entertainment capital of the world where the next raucous party is never more than a stone’s throw away. At 5.30pm local time, the city’s first major sports franchise, the Vegas Golden Knights, will play their first ever NHL game, away to the Dallas Stars. It is an ice hockey match some 26 years in the making and a landmark moment for the sport.

But late last week, everything changed. On Sunday evening, not long after thousands of fans had poured out of the T-Mobile Arena and onto the Strip after watching their new team narrowly lose their final game of the pre-season, a gunman named Stephen Paddock opened fire on an open-air concert from the 32nd floor of the nearby Mandalay Bay hotel. People initially mistook the loud, crackling noise for fireworks. 59 people died. 527 more were injured.

And, suddenly, the Golden Knights’ hastily-assembled squad of players, many of whom were eating dinner at the nearby Cosmopolitan as the tragedy unfolded, found themselves with a job far bigger than what they had been brought to the city to do. No longer hockey players but something else entirely, they visited the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department headquarters, United Blood Services, and the Las Vegas Convention Center, bringing some moral support to a city struggling to cope with the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history.

“Sports are a great thing, it can help take people’s minds off of things,” defenseman Nate Schmidt said during a media day on Wednesday, after stopping off at the city’s blood drive. “As much as the city has embraced us, we’re a part of Las Vegas and want to help through the grieving process.”

His team-mate, Deryk Engelland, was meanwhile still attempting to process the tragic events of Sunday night. “My wife is shaken up and she’s scared to go to the games, or to take the kids to the home opener,” he said. “You see these things happen all over the world and no one ever thinks it’s going to happen in their backyard. For it to happen here, it’s horrific.”

Horror, tragedy, grieving: these were not the circumstances under which Gerard Gallant imagined taking charge of his first regular game with his new team. A softly-spoken Canadian who was driving home after picking up his daughter from McCarran International Airport when the atrocity began to unfold, he told The Independent only a month previously how he expected the Golden Knights to be a force for good within the community.

“Teams are going to love coming here,” he said at the franchise’s headquarters, located away from the hustle and bustle of the Strip at the nearby planned community of Summerlin, Nevada. “We have a brand new arena and it will be cool for other teams to come here and play hockey. It’s exciting, there is a buzz around the place and there’s an amazing atmosphere here at the minute.”

It takes less than 20 minutes to drive from the Strip to Summerlin and yet it feels like a world away. Leafy, affluent and quiet, in stark contrast to the effervescent heart of Sin City, it is here that Gallant sat and discussed his plans for the season to ahead, having found some time out of preparing his new side for their very first season in the NHL.

That in itself is something of an accomplishment, as Gallant has had much to get ready before the NHL’s first expansion team since 2000 take to the ice in Dallas, Texas. An entire squad of new players must learn how to play alongside one another in a brand new system. Opposition teams must be scouted and prepared for. Not to mention the raft of off-the-rink, administrative duties.

Which rather begs the question: just why did he take the job?

Gallant smiled when the question was put to him. “The opportunity came up for me not long after I got fired from the Florida Panthers, last November,” he explained. And when I was let go in Florida, it hurt. It’s never fun to lose your job. But when the opportunities come up every coach is the same – you don’t want to just sit out and do nothing. I was on the list of the guys that the Golden Knights wanted to interview for the job and after I left my first interview I told my wife that I had a very good feeling about things. And after a long process, I was offered the position.”

The 54-year-old, who has prior experience working with a franchise team having previously coached the Columbus Blue Jackets, admitted to being drawn in by the prospect of leading the Golden Knights through a historic campaign, at a historic time for the city.

“There were a combination of factors that appealed to me about moving here,” added Gallant. “Of course I knew the people but then there was also the experience of being the first ever team in Las Vegas. I’d been here five or six times before, with my buddies on golf trips and on vacation with my wife, and I really enjoyed those experiences. And now I have the chance to help build something very special here.”