LAS VEGAS — The Vegas Golden Knights chose to celebrate a monumental moment for the franchise by thinking back to how its inaugural season began: hoping the new hockey team could bring smiles to a city reeling from tragedy.
Shortly after Vegas became the first NHL expansion team to ever clinch a playoff berth with a 4-1 win over the Colorado Avalanche on Monday night, the mantra in the locker room was the same as the one adopted shortly before the team’s home opener: “Vegas Strong.”
Team owner Bill Foley, veteran goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and leading scorer William Karlsson were among those who thought back Monday to the Oct. 1 mass shooting that killed 58 and injured hundreds more on the Las Vegas Strip.
“It was a disaster that night. It was a terrible massacre. We changed our initial opening night ceremonies, I thought we really connected with the town — I’m so proud of the whole team,” Foley said. “From then on, it was pretty unbelievable. We got off to that fast start. We’ve survived a lot of challenges this year, besides being an expansion team who nobody picked to do anything.”
No expansion team had ever made the playoffs since the league expanded from six to 12 teams for the 1967-68 season.
“It doesn’t bring anybody back or we don’t heal anybody,” Fleury said. “But I hope that we’ve changed people’s mind a bit and get them to come here and have a good time at T-Mobile (Arena) and be proud of their hometown team.”
Alex Tuch, Jonathan Marchessault, Shea Theodore and Karlsson each scored, while Fleury improved to 28-11-4 after stopping 28 shots.
It was the 200th career victory for coach Gerard Gallant.
“I’m really happy about making the playoffs — the 200th win doesn’t mean a whole lot,” Gallant said. “We always go back to our first home game. It wasn’t about our team winning, it wasn’t about nothing — it was about the first responders and the tragedy that happened the week before that.
“It was a tough way to start our season, but I think the guys and everybody supported it well. They all came out and played an unbelievable game that first night and I just think it carried over.”
The Golden Knights host San Jose on Saturday; they are six points in front of the Sharks in the Pacific Division. San Jose beat Chicago in overtime earlier Monday.
Erik Johnson scored for the Avalanche and Semyon Varlamov made 26 saves.
Colorado is 11-7-3 against the Pacific Division and dropped to 7-3-3 in March. The Avalanche are still riding a 9-3-3 streak but had a three-game road winning streak snapped.
The Avalanche are fourth in the Central Division but dropped to the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference, just behind Los Angeles, which beat Calgary.
“I’m not going to talk about a first-round (playoff) matchup, we gotta get there first,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. “I would have liked to add another point or two tonight, but we weren’t able to get it done.”
Tuch was in the right spot on Vegas’ first power play to punch home a loose puck and give the Golden Knights a 1-0 lead. Colorado tied it when Johnson was there to fire in a rebound.
Vegas went back up 2-1 when Marchessault beat Varlamov with a slick wrist shot. Vegas has scored with a man advantage in 20 of its last 31 games. Since Jan. 21, the Golden Knights lead the league with a power-play percentage of 30.4.
The Golden Knights wasted no time in extending their lead in the third period, when Erik Haula fed a streaking Theodore, who put one past Varlamov at the 1:31 mark.
Karlsson closed out the scoring with an empty-net goal, his 40th of the season.
“It feels pretty incredible. It’s good to clinch it at home ice,” Karlsson said. “It’s been a fun ride. Obviously, winning helps it. We had a great start and that set us off for the rest of the year. I think the whole city came together, the fans have been great, and they’ve helped us a lot. They fired us up and it was momentum all the way.”