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Benefield: Vegas Golden Knights have Sonoma County ties and a fast start in the NHL

Vegas Golden Knights left wing David Perron, right, celebrates after center William Karlsson, left, scored against the Columbus Blue Jackets during the third period Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

KERRY BENEFIELD,

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Say what? An expansion team, in its first year in the NHL, leading the Western Conference and vying for the best record in the league?

It’s true. The Golden Knights, owned by Sonoma County wine magnate Bill Foley, are the most successful expansion team in NHL history. By a long, long shot.

They are the fastest expansion team to hit the 20-win mark in NHL history. When they won their 31st game this week, league officials reminded awestruck fans that the expansion Senators didn’t win 31 games until deep, deep into their third season of existence.

Amazing, unreal and crazy are a couple of descriptors that come to mind.

Inexplicable is the word if you ask me, so rather than try to explain it, I turned to a real hockey mind to give it a go.

Nate Panek is the first-year head coach of the Santa Rosa Junior College Polar Bears ice hockey team. His family has been San Jose Sharks season ticket holders since Day One. He’s a hockey nut.

Turns out the Vegas Golden Knights’ outsized success is tough to put a finger on. No team has ever done something like this. And it goes against almost every accepted rule of building the foundation of a winning formula.

“You would have assumed it would have taken a year, if not two or three, to get an entire team on the same page,” he said.

Instead of working to get on the same page, the Golden Knights are rewriting the book on how to get it done. They are filling their arena every time out, they are winning on the road, they are beating quality teams.

They have even gotten the attention of the U.S. Army.

The U.S. Army on Jan. 10 filed notice in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office asking for a denial of the hockey team’s trademark application for “Vegas Golden Knights.”

The Army thinks people will get confused between its parachute team and a hockey team.

I guess. But with the start the hockey team has had, perhaps the U.S. Army should hitch its wagon to that star instead of trying to distance itself.

The Golden Knights are winning fans — even in the fan base of other teams — because they are a great story. Underdogs playing a fast and fun brand of hockey in a fast and fun kind of town.

“As a Sharks fan, if I’m going to watch an away game, I’d much rather go to a game in Vegas than a Sharks away game in Winnipeg,” Panek said.

Can’t fault a guy for that. It was 14 degrees in Winnipeg yesterday. It was 61 degrees in Las Vegas.

But good luck getting tickets. Seems like Vegas likes winners. The average attendance at T-Mobile Arena is 17,854 — almost 103 percent of capacity because of the hundreds of standing-room-only tickets sold per game, according to the Las Vegas Sun.

They even get crowds at their practices.

There is some thought that the evolution of the expansion draft process worked in Vegas’ favor. But there is also some thought that the Vegas management team navigated it like total pros.

The 30 teams already in the league had the ability to protect a certain number of players. The rest were left exposed to being picked by the Golden Knights.

So the guys who now make up the team with the second-best team in the league could be described as castoffs.

“These guys weren’t respected enough by their own team to be put under a protected level,” Panek said. “It’s ‘We’ll show you, you should have protected all of us.’

“It’s a bunch of guys let go by their teams putting up better numbers than they ever have,” he said.

By Monday, eight Golden Knights had posted career highs in points, including forward William Karlsson, who sweetened his season by scoring twice Tuesday night against his old squad, the Columbus Blue Jackets, in the Golden Knights’ 6-3 home win.

Panek said high praise must be given to coach Gerard Gallant, as well as the draft picks masterminded by general manager George McPhee.

So much of team’s success can be attributed to the culture a squad builds, and to leadership and tradition. A first-year team has none of that. A first-year team, in fact, has almost a vacuum because everyone is new, everyone is coming with a bit of baggage and perhaps a not-so-small chip on their shoulder.

“They all kind of took this mentality of ‘We don’t have traditions here, we don’t have history here,’” Panek said. “It was brand new, fresh from the start and they could kind of develop their own culture, their own game around what they want. It really seems to have worked with them.”

And Gallant picked guys who would work in the system he envisioned for the Golden Knights, Panek said.

“Again, credit to the coaching staff and the management staff,” he said. “They picked their players not necessarily as the best player available from each team, but they picked their players from each team who best fits into the system they want.”

And the system they want? Fast and fun. Very Vegas.

“Everything I have heard about the team is that they keep it fairly loose,” Panek said. “They seem to be enjoying the game.”

Winning will do that for you.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671, kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.