LM Otero / Associated Press
Friday, May 19, 2023 | 2 a.m.
Golden Knights defenseman Zach Whitecloud loves playoff hockey. When that’s pretty much all you’ve known since becoming a full-time NHL player, you want more of it.
Since Whitecloud became a fixture on the Golden Knights in 2020, his NHL career has seen three trips to the Western Conference Final — and, painfully, one season missing the Stanley Cup playoffs. Missing last year’s playoffs, he said,was the ultimate gut punch.
“When you’re sitting at home doing whatever after the regular season, it sucks,” the Golden Knights defenseman said.
Whitecloud is eager to take the next step in his playoff progression by helping the Knights win the Clarence Campbell Bowl as the Western Conference champions and earning a spot in the Stanley Cup Final.
That’s what is at stake beginning today when Vegas hosts the Dallas Stars at 5:30 p.m. to open the best-of-seven series at T-Mobile Arena. It’s Vegas’ fourth trip to the Western Conference Final in six seasons of existence, starting in 2018 when the expansion club topped the Winnipeg Jets as part of an improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final.
“We’re here. We’ve been here,” said defenseman Brayden McNabb, an original member of the franchise. “We’ve got the experience and we can’t take that moment for granted.”
McNabb has been front and center for all the great wins, like the Game 5 victory against the Jets in 2018 to win the conference. He’s also seen the heartbreak of early exits in three other trips to hockey’s final four, including a series loss in 2020 to the Stars.
Of course, that season was unlike any in NHL history, with a six-month pause because of the coronavirus pandemic.
When the season resumed, Vegas later earned the top playoff seed and grabbed series wins against the Chicago Blackhawks and Vancouver Canucks.
But the Vegas offense evaporated against Dallas’ physical style, scoring only nine goals in a five-game loss.
In the shortened 56-game season that started three months later, the Golden Knights may have put together the best team in franchise history, finishing tied atop the league standings with the Colorado Avalanche.
In the postseason, they beat the Minnesota Wild in seven games and Avalanche in six games — after trailing 2-0 — in advancing to the Stanley Cup semifinals that season.
But they struggled against the Montreal Canadiens, being held to two goals or fewer in Games 2 through 6. Montreal was pedestrian at best with a 24-21-11 regular-season record and with a lineup of inexperienced players. But the Canadiens held off the Knights to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
“We’ve been fortunate in past years to get here and we haven’t been able to get through this round,” McNabb said.
That fortune ran dry last season, when injuries to standouts Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty defined the underachieving season that resulted in the team missing the playoffs for the first time and coach Pete DeBoer being fired.
But DeBoer wouldn’t be on the coaching carousel for long, getting hired by the Stars just over a month after his dismissal from Vegas. He has since worked his coaching magic to lead the Stars on a lengthy playoff run.
It follows a similar script during his career. In DeBoer’s first season with New Jersey, he took the Devils to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012. He did the same thing in 2016 during his initial season in San Jose with the Sharks. His clubs, though, lost to the Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins, respectively.
When he came to Vegas in January 2020, he went 15-5-2 before the season paused and led Vegas to that conference final bubble appearance.
“I would’ve hoped after back-to-back conference finals, and six months earlier we were playing for the Presidents’ Trophy and beating Colorado in the playoffs, that I would’ve gotten the opportunity to work with a full roster,” DeBoer said in an Aug. 13 interview with the Sun. “(But) there’s nothing in this business at this level that’s fair, and I’m at peace with it.”
The Golden Knights reaped the rewards of their coaching change with Bruce Cassidy, tying a franchise record with 51 wins in the regular season and claiming the top seed in the Western Conference.
“Expectations are high and then it’s taken away from you, so I think that’s where the motivation comes in,” said Cassidy, the former Boston Bruins coach who guided the team to a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2018-19 against the eventual champion St. Louis Blues. “Let’s get back to being that team that expects to be back every year and does the work to be there.
“I think there’s guys that will use (the past three years) as motivation, but now I think we’re further along. Now you’re thinking, ‘OK, you’re in the final four. It’s about the big prize.’ ”
The pressure to win mounts, but there’s a different pressure this time. Losing as the top seed in the West is one thing. Losing to Dallas for the second time in four years is another.
Losing to the coach who was fired just over a year ago? Insanity.
The Golden Knights don’t lack confidence, though. They have exhibited little stress since coming back from Game 4 in Edmonton, tied 2-2. They proceeded to have their two best games and clinch the series from the Oilers in six games.
The past three years have been a steep learning curve. Only the Golden Knights can prove within the next week how much they’ve learned.
“Until you win the thing,” Whitecloud said, “you don’t focus on anything else.”
Golden Knights vs. Dallas Stars
• Game 1: 5:30 p.m. today at T-Mobile Arena (ESPN)
• Game 2: 12 p.m. Sunday at T-Mobile Arena (ABC)
• Game 3: 5 p.m. Tuesday at Dallas (ESPN)
• Game 4: 5 p.m. May 25 at Dallas (ESPN)
• Game 5: 5 p.m. May 27 at T-Mobile Arena (ABC)*
• Game 6: 5 p.m. May 29 at Dallas (ESPN)*
•ν Game 7: 6 p.m. May 31 at T-Mobile Arena (ESPN)*