Jason Franson / The Canadian Press via AP
Friday, Jan. 1, 2021 | 2 a.m.
The hope is that hockey in 2021 will start to look normal again.
The coronavirus pandemic played a major role in the oddities of the Golden Knights in 2020, but even without pausing for the pandemic, the year would have been a bonkers one by the standards of any NHL team.
The chaotic year saw Mark Stone’s return to Ottawa, Max Pacioretty’s first All-Star Game, Jon Merrill’s game as a forward, the Golden Knights earning the top seed in the Western Conference and so many others didn’t even crack the top 10 moments of the year.
Which ones did? We take a look.
No. 10: Golden Knights match franchise record with eight-game winning streak
The Peter DeBoer coaching era arrived with an exclamation point in February. The Golden Knights stumbled for the first few months of the season, and benefited from no team in the division taking it and running away. That opened the door for the Golden Knights to seize the Pacific with a winning streak, and that’s just what they did.
They beat the Blues, Islanders, Capitals, Lightning and Panthers — all postseason teams — to sweep a season-long five-game home stand. They went on the road to beat the Ducks, then returned home to cap the streak with wins against the Oilers and Sabres. It vaulted Vegas to the top of the division, a perch it remained atop for the rest of the year.
No. 9: Marc-Andre Fleury’s agent takes to Twitter
In the end it was more of a sideshow that didn’t affect anything, but it was still jarring to see the prominent agent of a beloved player post a picture of Fleury with a sword through his back with “DeBoer” written on the sword. The implication was obvious — that agent Allan Walsh felt his client was betrayed by DeBoer, who started fellow goalie Robin Lehner in 16 of the 20 playoff games.
Fleury and DeBoer both shook it off and said it didn’t matter, and Fleury asked Walsh to delete the post. Fleury and DeBoer get along well enough, even delivering bikes together as part of a holiday toy drive. It appears there is no lasting damage done, but that was a weird day on the internet.
No. 8: Golden Knights bring AHL to Henderson, Silver Knights are born
The Golden Knights had a strong American Hockey League agreement with the Chicago Wolves but wanted a team closer to home. In February they announced their intention to purchase the San Antonio Rampage and relocate them to the Las Vegas Valley, which gained approval soon after. Later those plans formed to base the team in Henderson, where they built a new practice facility and are constructing a new arena.
Then came the name: the Henderson Silver Knights. Vegas will have its AHL affiliate right down the road, allowing players to easily transfer between the teams without flights to Chicago, and allow coaches and staff to watch the AHL squad on a nightly basis. It’s also a testament to the growing popularity of hockey in the valley that the Golden Knights felt they could support two professional teams in the area.
No. 7: Golden Knights fall in Western Conference Final to Stars
The end of the season is always a crusher. It wasn’t as heartbreaking as losing in the Stanley Cup Final or falling in a controversial Game 7, but the Golden Knights believed they were built to win the Stanley Cup. Then they met Dallas in the conference finals, and could not put the puck in the net.
Vegas scored just eight goals in the five games, with three coming in its only victory of the series. The Golden Knights struggled against Dallas’ defense-first system and goalie Anton Khudobin but never played poorly — all four losses were by one goal, with two coming in overtime. It was a successful playoff run, but ask any player and they’ll tell you the same thing: It doesn’t feel successful if you don’t win the last game of the season.
No. 6: Golden Knights defeat Vancouver Canucks in Game 7 of second round
Any Game 7 victory is a cause for celebration, but the Golden Knights needed this one. The setup was eerily similar to the 2019 playoffs: Vegas takes a 3-1 lead in the series, only to lose twice and force a Game 7. This one against the Canucks even had a five-minute penalty, the flashpoint moment in the Game 7 against the Sharks a year earlier.
This time, though, the Golden Knights prevailed. They killed off Ryan Reaves’ penalty to keep the game scoreless, Robin Lehner made a tremendous save and Shea Theodore broke a 0-0 tie in the third period to spark Vegas’ eventual 3-0 victory. As far as must-win games go, it was the Golden Knights’ biggest victory of the season.
No. 5: Golden Knights acquire Robin Lehner from Chicago
It was the trade that launched a thousand questions about the Golden Knights’ plans in net, both for the short- and long-term. Lehner was an established star, having finished third in the Vezina Trophy voting in 2019. His arrival came amid one of Marc-Andre Fleury’s worst statistical seasons. Oh, and Lehner was seven years younger and a free agent at the end of the season.
Lehner and Fleury split the rest of the regular season, but Lehner assumed the mantle of starter in the playoffs, grabbing the net for 16 of the 20 games. He signed a five-year extension in October, cementing him as the goalie of the future. It led to plenty of speculation Fleury might be traded, but that never developed, and the Golden Knights will enter the season with two expensive starting goalies.
No. 4: Golden Knights sign Alex Pietrangelo, trade Nate Schmidt
In another of an ever-increasing list of bold moves, the Golden Knights signed the best free agent on the market. It just came at the expense of perhaps the biggest fan-favorite. Pietrangelo was a star defenseman for the Blues, and his impending free agency had been linked to Vegas well beyond just this offseason. But it was still stunning to see it happen.
Pietrangelo signed a massive seven-year deal, making him the second highest-paid Golden Knight and fifth highest-paid defenseman in the league. Vegas didn’t have room under the salary cap, and made room by sending Schmidt to Vancouver and Paul Stastny to Winnipeg for a future draft pick. It changed the complexion of the Golden Knights, giving them the true No. 1 defenseman they had been seeking. They have stars at every position arguably at the expense of depth, which makes for an interesting case study this season.
No. 3: Ryan Reaves leads push for racial justice protests in playoffs
The ongoing battle for racial justice came to the sports world in 2020, and the Golden Knights had a major role in how it affected hockey. Following the death of George Floyd this summer, athletes from across all sports pocketed the usual “stick to sports” policy and became outspoken critics, often involving the cancellation of postponement of games.
Ryan Reaves, Robin Lehner and two Dallas Stars knelt for the national anthem ahead of their round-robin game, days after Minnesota’s Matt Dumba became the first NHL player to kneel. Then in the second round, players, led in part by Reaves, boycotted playing, forcing the league to postpone games.
No. 2: Golden Knights fire Gerard Gallant, hire Peter DeBoer as coach
This is one that definitely feels like happened five years ago. The Golden Knights were slumping and decided the cure was dismissing the first coach in franchise history and replacing him with the man he called a “clown” during a heated playoff series just eight months prior. DeBoer took over and after a slow start, led the Golden Knights’ resurgence to the top of the Pacific Division.
It’s easy to forget how divisive this move was. Gallant was beloved in Vegas and DeBoer was very much not. It also seemingly came out of nowhere, with Gallant getting the news the morning after the first game of a road trip. Gallant had won the Jack Adams as coach of the year just two seasons ago, but Vegas made its decision. One division title and an appearance in the conference final later, it’s hard to argue with the results.
No. 1: Pandemic halts NHL season
Almost everything that happened in 2020 is related to the COVID-19 pandemic. It started on March 9, when the NHL and other sports leagues announced locker rooms would be closed to the media, the first sign things were happening. The Golden Knights held one availability in the video room at City National Arena where no one really knew what was going to happen next. They flew to Minnesota on March 11 for their game the next night that never happened.
The season paused for more than four months, resuming in a bubble in Canada. The Golden Knights got a new coach, a new goalie, a new defenseman and reached the conference finals all in 2020. But the year will always be remembered as the season that COVID-19 disrupted.