Vegas Strong: Golden Knights rally to win opener, 2-1

DALLASJames Neal didn’t play in any preseason games for the Vegas Golden Knights as he recovered from off-season surgery to repair a broken hand following the Stanley Cup playoffs.

It took him a little over two periods Friday night to shake the rust off.

The 6-foot-2, 221-pound left winger scored the first goal in franchise history with 9:33 to go on a wrist shot that sailed through traffic to tie it at 1-1, then scored the first game-winning goal in team history with a sliding wrist shot from the right circle with 2:44 remaining to give the Golden Knights a dramatic 2-1 victory over the Dallas Stars at American Airlines Center.

Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was brilliant in net for Las Vegas, stopping 45 of 46 shots to keep the Golden Knights in the game until Neal warmed up.

The first victory in franchise history came just five days after 58 people were shot and killed at a country music concert just a short walk from T-Mobile Arena. Golden Knight players said afterward they hoped the win might heal some of the pain the Las Vegas community has been experiencing.

“It’s a big thing, you know,” Fleury said. “Not just being because it’s the first game of the history of the team and all. We all wanted it to be a good memory that way but also for everything that’s happened back home … have them proud of their team, you know. I’m glad we got that first win here.”

“Definitely a happy story,” Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant said. “It’s great for our franchise to win our first game but (also) for the sad thing that happened in Vegas it helps even a little bit for sure.”

“(Sunday’s shooting was) something to rally around,” Neal added. “But for all of us it’s a new chance, a new start. When you’re part of an expansion draft they tend not to give you that much of an upside. But we have a good hockey team. We have some good players. We had a lot of fun tonight. We had a great training camp, and it showed.

Dallas led 1-0 after two periods when Tyler Seguin redirected a shot by Devin Shore over Fleury’s left shoulder and into the top corner with 2:59 remaining.

But Neal, who also delivered the hit of the night at the end of the period on Sequin in the goal crease, made history midway through the third period when he scored on a delayed penalty from the top of the right circle, wristing a shot through traffic that beat backup goalie Kari Lehtonen, who relieved starter Ben Bishop after he was injured earlier in the period.

“A great feeling,” Neal said. “Guys were really excited so it was awesome.”

Less than seven minutes later, Neal, sliding on his knees after taking a pass from center Cody Eakin, lofted a shot over Lehtonen for the game-winner.

“I just tried to do everything I could just to give myself a chance to get it on net,” Neal said. “I saw that Kari was down, so I just tried to get it up. Honestly, it was a great feeling. It was a lot of fun out there.”

“(Neal) is a goal scorer,” Gallant said. “He played a real good game. It was his first game of the year and he’s probably going to be pretty tired tomorrow morning. But he played and he capitalized on those chances and that’s what a goal scorer does.”

The Golden Knights had little time to celebrate the victory. They flew to Phoenix immediately after the game where they will play the Arizona Coyotes on Saturday night at 6 p.m. PT at Gila River Arena.

“Not worried about that at all,” Gallant said of playing back-to-back nights on the road. “We’ll enjoy this and then tomorrow afternoon we’ll do our pre-scout and get ready for the Coyotes. This is a great win for our franchise tonight and we’re pretty excited.”

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