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It could be construed as surreal. Or maybe just plain weird. But for the Vegas Golden Knights, playing at home in an empty arena didn’t seem to throw them off their game too much.

The Knights last skated in T-Mobile Arena 10 months ago. Thursday, they got out of the starting gate for their 56-game sprint of an NHL 2021 season on the right skate, scoring a pair of third-period goals to break a 2-2 tie and defeat Anaheim, 5-2.

The team tried to replicate the frenzied atmosphere that has made the Knights the talk of the league. Fake crowd noise, cheerleaders, their Gila Monster mascot Chance prancing around. But that took a back seat to the need to win on opening night against a team that last played in mid-March and did not make it to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“With this team, you can see the speed and the talent,” DeBoer said. “But you also see the chemistry and the leadership and we have some good, honest men in that room.

“We wanted to get off to a good start. What I liked was we lost momentum after the quick start but we came out and dictated tempo in the third period when it mattered the most.”

With no 18,000-plus to spur them on, the Knights had to generate their own energy and did so with goals in the first 2:13 from Jonathan Marchessault and Tomas Nosek — two of the original “Golden Misfits.” It appeared this was going to be a short evening for Ducks goaltender John Gibson, who has been yanked a couple of times over the short history of the Ducks-Knights.

But Max Comtrois scored twice and it was suddenly 2-2 after just 8:22 had elapsed. There was going to be some grit involved for Vegas to get the two points it desired.

And after tightening up things in their own end following the second period, the Knights got rewarded as Mark Stone, named the team’s first-ever captain the day before, delivered 49 seconds into the third on a nice pass from behind the net from Chandler Stevenson to break the deadlock. Ten minutes later, Stone fed Max Pacioretty as he was falling to the ice and Pacioretty beat Gibson from inside the left faceoff circle to make it 4-2. 

Alex Tuch delivered an empty net goal with 13.8 seconds left to seal the win. 

“He led the way. That’s why he’s wearing the C,” DeBoer said of Stone, who said: “We got a little grittier in the third period and that’s what helped get us the win.

“It felt different not having the fans in the building. But once you step on the ice, nothing changes. We’ve got to learn to continue to push when we get up 2-0.”

But while Stone delivered as expected, all eyes were on the newest Knight. Alex Pietrangelo debuted for Vegas and it didn’t go all that smoothly. He logged 25:30 of ice time Thursday as DeBoer elected to go with five defensemen instead of the usual six as the team tried to be compliant with the NHL’s salary cap. 

“I thought the lineup was a non-factor,” DeBoer said. “I thought all five D played well and we were able to play a lot of different combinations.”

Pietrangelo looked out of sync for stretches in his Golden Knights debut, but he settled in and appeared to get more comfortable as the game went along.

“It felt different without the fans,” Pietrangelo said. “I thought I adjusted as the game went on. It was fun to be a part of it.”

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The other focal point for many was the play of Robin Lehner in the Vegas net. DeBoer refused to announce his starting goaltender after the morning skate and when No. 90 skated out for the pregame warmups, fans, bettors and fantasy players alike finally knew who was in goal for the home team.

Lehner wasn’t great but he was steady enough, turning aside 18 of the 20 Anaheim shots he faced. 

“It’s going to take some time to get used to but I thought we handled it well,” Lehner said. 

Whether he’s back in net for Saturday’s rematch at T-Mobile won’t be known until warmups. But DeBoer has indicated he planned a 50-50 split early on with Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury so there’s a good chance Fleury gets the call.

Pacioretty said he expects a strong push from the Ducks.

“It’s going to be a unique season,” he said. “They’ll watch film and try and learn our habits. It’s almost like a mini-playoff series. I expect they’ll come a little harder at us Saturday.

About the Author

Steve Carp

Steve Carp is a six-time Nevada Sportswriter of the Year. A 30-year veteran of the Las Vegas sports journalism scene, he covered the Vegas Golden Knights for the Las Vegas Review-Journal from 2015-2018.

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