LAS VEGAS — When players walk from the locker room to the ice at T-Mobile Arena, the hallway around them has mirrors on both sides. That’s fitting for a Kraken squad taking the ice in the regular season for the first time, facing a team that in many ways is a reflection of what it could become.
The NHL schedule-makers probably considered the potential for a built-in rivalry between the league’s two newest teams; it made a lot of sense to send the Kraken to Vegas to face a Golden Knights team entering its fifth year in the NHL.
The Kraken isn’t facing just the league’s second-newest club, but also expectations born from the Golden Knights’ run to the Stanley Cup Final in their first season.
Predictions go only so far, and with COVID-19 in play across the NHL it’s more difficult than ever to guess which teams will go deep in the postseason. The Montreal Canadiens, who were the last club to reach last season’s playoffs and upset the Golden Knights in the Cup semifinals, are prime example of that.
Kraken predictions have ranged from them being a dark-horse contender to make a postseason run to missing the playoffs entirely. No one expected the Golden Knights to do what they did in their first season, so perhaps the Kraken can thank them for any expectations being they’re facing.
“You want to get a shift early; you know when you’re playing in Vegas it’s like that here all the time,” Kraken captain Mark Giordano said of the atmosphere at T-Mobile Arena. “Let alone the home opener.”
The Knights — who lost to the Washington Capitals in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final — have reached the Stanley Cup semifinals (or Western Conference Finals before last season) in three of their first four seasons.
Other than the St. Louis Blues in 1968 — when they were in an expansion division and sent an automatic representative to the Final — the Golden Knights are the only expansion club to reach the Cup Final in its first season.
The NHL has greatly expanded since 1990, adding 11 teams. Most took time to experience success. Of expansion clubs besides Vegas since 1998 — Nashville, Columbus, Minnesota, and Atlanta (now Winnipeg) — only Nashville has reached the Cup Final, and that took 18 years.
Vegas turned that narrative on its head. That the Golden Knights have become a power in the NHL so quickly has dropped lofty expectations on the Kraken.
On Tuesday night the Kraken stared those expectations in the face, with the Golden Knights team in front of it.
“It’s exciting to play in their building; they probably want to show us we can’t do what they did,” Kraken forward Marcus Johansson said. “And we want to show them the other way around.”
A team’s inaugural regular-season game is special enough. The pomp and circumstance of a typical Golden Knights game, especially in the season opener, and them being a Stanley Cup contender made Tuesday’s game all the more enticing, especially for many in the national ESPN audience experiencing their first taste of the NHL.
Under normal circumstances, it’s quite the introduction for the Kraken. The additional element of the external pressure — whether the team feels it or not — of facing the Golden Knights is not only an extra narrative but a worthwhile comparison of what a modern expansion team looks like.
Despite falling 4-3 in the matchup, the Kraken knows the excitement of a first season happens only once. Of anyone in the league, the group of players on the original Golden Knights roster knows that best.
The two most recent expansion clubs before the Knights — Minnesota and Columbus in 2000-01 — don’t have any active players still in the league. So the only recent history in front of the Kraken, the only blueprint and potential formula, comes from Vegas.
Perhaps that’s the recipe for a rivalry unlike any in the modern NHL, but it’s also the first time the Kraken sees a potential version of itself staring back at it.
“It’s a cool thing,” Johansson said, “to start the first game with Vegas. … It’s special.”