By W.G. RAMIREZ
The Associated Press
LAS VEGAS — A day after the NHL’s biggest surprise team lost a rare home game in front of the biggest crowd of the season, more than 10,000 fans flooded downtown Las Vegas for a Golden Knights fan fest.
That’s the kind of impact their record-shattering first half has had in the community.
The first-year Golden Knights lead the Western Conference with a record of 29-10-3 (61 points).
Their current points percentage (.726) is higher than the midpoint of any expansion team in its inaugural season in the NBA (since 1961-62), MLB (1961) or the NFL/AFL (1960). That includes an incredible 18-2-2 record at T-Mobile Arena.
No NHL club in the expansion era (since 1967) has finished its inaugural season with a points percentage of .500 or higher.
But the Golden Knights continue to prove they can beat anyone in the league. The key is sustaining the momentum they had in the first half.
“The players are a lot more confident,” Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said. “We’ve had a great first half and we all know that. But the first half means nothing if you don’t pick it up in the second half.”
Following Saturday’s 3-2 overtime loss to Edmonton, Gallant said the league’s mandated bye week may have affected his players, some of whom enjoyed a well-deserved trip to Cabo San Lucas.
“It’s easy to say your team’s rested and you’re ready to jump, but when you have five days from your break, it’s tough to get going,” Gallant said. “I’m going to give my guys credit. I thought after the 10-minute mark, we played real well the rest of the game.”
Gallant, who again could be a finalist for the Jack Adams Award given to the league’s coach of the year, was quick to add he has no concern over his team’s work ethic, and believes they’ll be ready for a crucial four-game road trip over six nights, beginning with Nashville today.
“When you get a break like that you come back,” he said. “I think it’s a good thing, cause the players need that break some time during the season. It’s tough coming back for that first game, but after that it’s going to be good for your team.”
James Neal, the team’s second-leading goal scorer with 18, said the time off helps re-energize players, with much-needed muscle recovery before making a run to the postseason.
“As the games get more compiled in, you’re playing night after night almost, so rest is very important,” said Neal, who will join goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury at the All-Star game in Tampa Bay at the end of the month.
“I think everybody’s getting ready for a playoff push. You can feel the veteran presence through the first half of the year. That’s what’s made us such a good team and I think that’s what’s going to help us at the end of the season.”
Defenseman Nate Schmidt believes the players have three seasons to worry about — the first and second halves, and the playoffs — so they must be ready to adjust at any given moment.
“In order to keep the ball rolling and continue to grow as a team, you have to understand that this game is going to be different,” said Schmidt, who already has a career-best 19 points this season.
“Things are going to tighten up, they’re not as loose as things are in the first half of the year because teams start to find their lineup combinations, things on the ice, plays, they’re a lot harder to come by.
“For our guys, in order to continue, you rely on those guys that have been there, guys that know what it’s like to be there at the end of the year.”
Such as Fleury, who has won three Stanley Cups and has played in 704 games — 115 in the playoffs. The 14-year veteran goaltender said as long as players continue to have the right mindset in approaching games, the winning can continue.
“We’re all focused on the next game and grabbing the two points,” said Fleury, who is 9-2-2 with a .942 save percentage.
“I don’t think we want to tweak anything right now. I think the team is playing the right way. The guys are playing hard offensively, defensively. The guys are not cheating, trying to get breakaways and stuff like that. They’re playing the way we should and the way we can, and the work ethic is there every night. Just keep it honest every night.”