June 4, 2023 02:01
LAS VEGAS Five years ago, newly signed by the Vegas Golden Knights as a free agent out of college, Zach Whitecloud experienced his new team’s transition to the 2018 Stanley Cup Finals as an intern.
He was one of the “aces,” the overflow skaters—usually prospects or teams they thought they could someday play them at the NHL level—who train separately from the main group but stay close enough to watch and learn.
“I’ve been able to be there but not there and see how it goes,” Whitecloud, 26, explained Saturday night. “You see what the grind looks like, you see how the guys take care of themselves and you kind of see the atmosphere and you’re in the building and watching. All these little experiences you’re kind of evolving as a player and you’re preparing for times like this.”
Moments like the Golden Knights’ second Stanley Cup Final, which kicked off Saturday with a solid 5-2 win over the Florida Panthers.
Moments like scoring the game-winning goal, which Whitecloud did at 6:59 of the third period when he broke the tie at 2-2 with a cracked shot by Florida goalkeeper Sergey Bobrovsky.
[brightcove videoID=6328777895112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]
Moments like the post-match press conference when, in a flashy moment, Whitecloud accidentally gets up off the table much to the amusement of his more seasoned and colder media colleague, Mark Stone.
Zack Whitecloud, an unstructured defensive third lineman who grew up in the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation west of Brandon, Manitoba, was more than there. He was in the spotlight.
The Golden Knights are three wins away from winning the Stanley Cup, just six seasons after entering the NHL and erasing preconceived notions about expansion teams.
Maybe Vegas will get those three wins in the next few weeks, or maybe they won’t. But the teams that win the Stanley Cup get the winning goals from players like Whitecloud, who has 15 NHL goals to his name in the past three seasons since graduating from the Farm Knights.
They were saved like an incredible save from Adin Hill, fourth goaltender on the Knights’ regulation depth chart, that was made early in the second half to steal Nick Cousins. The second best save of the match was Vegas defender Alex Pietrangelo who saved Cousins’ rebound attempt on what was at the time an open net.
[brightcove videoID=6328780101112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]
They get plays like Stone made it in the third period to drive a high pass from Matthew Tkachuk through Florida territory and fire a shot into the top corner to make it 4-2 at 1:41 p.m.
And they have the discipline the Knights showed late in the match when Tkachuk got ahead of his earlier input, taking a slight double and misbehaving for 10 minutes to throw punches at a variety of semi-crowded opponents. during the post-whistle period.
“I mean, obviously, it’s part of their game,” said Jack Eichel of the Vegas Center. “As a group, they did well in the qualifiers. Obviously, they wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them. So, I mean, you just have to stick together, stay together as a group. We know it’s going to be physical.”
“Their background here is that they were really physical,” Knights winger Jonathan Marquessault said. “We know it’s going to be…a very physical game. I think it doesn’t matter to our group. We’re just trying to play the right way and be disciplined. And tonight we managed to be the best team again.
“There’s a lot at stake, right? We’re playing for everyone’s dream, and I think we did really well tonight. We played our consistent game and didn’t feel the heat like it did in the end. And I think this victory is hockey for our group.”
[brightcove videoID=6328778188112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]
Even with a solid roster of players for size and willingness to defend themselves physically, the Knights were by far the most disciplined team in the league during the regular season, stopping just 195 times in 82 games.
Taking a punch in the ruse wouldn’t defeat the Golden Knights, but putting the opponent in might might.
“It’s that time of year,” Cassidy said of his players’ self-control. “I think as the show goes on, there’s an opportunity to be physical and break the rules so to speak. I think tonight was a good example of that from our guys. We’ve been like that all year. We’re not a very punitive team.”
But very good. A great story, too, as the second-youngest franchise in the league.
Whitecloud’s six “misfits” still ran to the Cup final in Vegas’ inaugural season. They’re a much better team now, but three of the original players scored on Saturday: Marchessault, Shea Theodore and Reilly Smith.
“I think this organization set itself a goal from day one to get a win,” Stone, who arrived as a sophomore, told reporters. “These guys have been the driving force since day one. I think these guys – I don’t know if they’re really looking back – but they just want to win, right?”
more than all. And now, as before, they have something special.