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Steve Marcus

Vegas Golden Knights center Chandler Stephenson (20) celebrates with Max Pacioretty (67) and Alex Pietrangelo (7) after scoring during the third period of an NHL hockey game at T-Mobile Arena Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021. Stephenson deflected a puck off his skate, a goal that held up as the winner in a 4-3 Golden Knights victory.

Nic Hague lifted his right arm celebrating what appeared to be his first goal of the season, and intentional or not, the motion made him look like a conductor of revelry.

T-Mobile Arena’s trademark bass thumped. Rally sticks collided. Bodies bounced. Even Golden Knights team owner Bill Foley, who admitted to feeling a great deal of opening-night nerves in a pregame radio interview, clapped and grinned as he was shown on the big screen from his suite.    

Everything was going smoothly for Vegas early in Tuesday night’s season opener as it raced out to a 3-0 lead over the expansion Seattle Kraken. Too smoothly.

“That’s hockey for you,” goalie Robin Lehner said afterwards. “I keep saying 3-0 is a dangerous score.”

The merriment of the first 30 minutes of the season turned to a distress in the final 30 minutes for the majority of the 18,431 fans in attendance. Seattle scored the next three goals to tie the game and give hope to a storybook comeback for the first game in franchise history.

They could have easily registered a couple more scores in the rally, though so too could have the Golden Knights as the two new Pacific Division foes traded constant chances. A controversial third-period goal that Chandler Stephenson clearly kicked but importantly didn’t, um, do so with a distinct kicking motion was the only thing that ultimately elevated Vegas to a 4-3 victory.

It was a perfect opening night because winning in the NHL is not supposed to be easy anyway. Many Vegas fans may have preferred a stress-free cruise to victory but a game that has a little bit of everything — excitement, suspense, confusion, etc. — made for a more fitting start.

The drama amplified an already-raucous environment.     

“There’s just a really big buzz in this city right now whether it be the Raiders or everyone looking to make up for lost time, tonight was a real special night for everyone in the building,” said Max Pacioretty, who scored twice including getting credit for deflecting Hague’s aforementioned shot. “We definitely used that energy from the fans. I don’t know if it’s louder than it was before the COVID stuff, but it really felt like one of the louder rinks I’ve been in tonight, and we used that energy to come back in that game and ultimately get the win.”

Las Vegas has gotten multiple new sports franchises, including the one Pacioretty mentioned in the country’s most popular professional league, since the last time the Golden Knights staged a home opener with fans in 2019. And yet, none of them have a hold on the city quite like the Golden Knights.

That was apparent throughout the night, especially when Lehner emulated the opponent’s sea-monster namesake by laying out for saves in one final flurry of shots once the Kraken’s pulled its goalie inside the final two minutes. The building’s collective sigh of relief followed immediately by the resumption of the raging party was the type of emotional swing the Golden Knights provide best around here.

“It seems like every game, the fans are louder and bring so much emotion to the game and got everybody into it on the team,” Stephenson said. “I think to start off with how that was, you can’t ask for anything better.”

The fans couldn’t have asked for more as far as the way the Golden Knights responded to their first adversity of the season. Center Morgan Geekie scored the game-tying goal with a fastball wrister eight minutes into the third period.

He then apparently stared down the Golden Knights’ bench and “did a little stick twirl,” according to Vegas captain Mark Stone. Right then, Pacioretty told Stephenson they needed to score on the next shift.

Ninety-five seconds later, that request became reality as Stone roped a pass through traffic into Stephenson, or at least into Stephenson’s skate. Add vengeance to the list of themes covered in the Game 1 saga.  

“I didn’t see the celebration, but I know our players took offense to it and decided they were going to do something about it next shift and they went out and scored the goal,” Vegas coach Pete DeBoer said. “Good learning lesson for some guys.”

The celebration right after the puck went into the net once again told the tale. Pacioretty was the first to skate over to Stephenson after what turned out to be the game-winning goal, but the center stopped him before engaging in anything too congratulatory.

It looked like Stephenson knew he had kicked the puck. When the referee announced it was a deflection and not a kick after video review, the big screen caught Stephenson laughing wide-eyed on the bench.

“I really wasn’t too sure,” Stephenson said of the call. “I was kind of asking around what the ruling was, and I guess it being on the outside of my skate helped a lot.”

His body language indicated he might have thought he got away with one. Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after the game that he thought it was a kicking motion, though admitted there was “a gray area” in the NHL’s new rule on the matter.

Again, that’s hockey and Tuesday’s contest showcased the game in all its glory. It can be confusing. It can cause a lot of conflict. It can make everyone crazy.

It’s good that’s it back. 

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

Article written by #LasVegasSun

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