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Golden Knights give Vegas a real sense of community

Five Elvis impersonators walked up the aisle of T-Mobile Arena during the first period Wednesday night and no one blinked. It's Las Vegas, after all.

But those who ignored the Elvises (Elvi?) weren't blasé. They had their priorities straight. No one wanted to miss a second of the pulsating Stanley Cup playoff debut of the first-year Vegas Golden Knights, the first major professional sports team to put down roots here and the biggest show in a city that knows how to stage big shows.

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Fans wearing gold lame, Elvis-style sideburns, team jerseys and everything else along the sartorial spectrum sang and roared all night. They changed the words of the chorus of "Sweet Caroline" to "Sweet Golden Knights," and they created a blizzard by swirling white towels, cementing a love affair that has deepened with each win in a season full of unprecedented success. A team that was given no chance to make the playoffs but finished atop the Pacific division defied its doubters again by standing up to the Kings' physicality and outplaying them in a 1-0 victory, the Golden Knights' welcome-to-the-NHL night.

At the end, the crowd counted down the final seconds in a deafening din. "It was a lot of passion coming from the fans. You can really feel it on the bench. Everything shakes when they start roaring," Vegas defenseman Nate Schmidt said.

"I think that's the loudest I've heard this building," said goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, a three-time Cup champion with Pittsburgh who was the centerpiece of Vegas' expansion draft haul last June and made 30 saves on Wednesday.

The Golden Knights can't be dismissed as an expansion team anymore. They're as hard-working as any team with a long history and they're faster than most everyone else, which helped them get through the neutral zone against the Kings on Wednesday. They also have the support of a community and home crowd that have adopted them enthusiastically.

"I knew we were going to have a good team from our goaltender on out. I knew we would be competitive," forward James Neal said. "That being said, I never thought about the support and the way the community has wrapped around our team and given us a place to play like that every night. It's been pretty cool."

The Golden Knights had shared Las Vegas' sorrow over the shooting deaths of 58 people at the Harvest festival concert last Oct. 1, quickly sending players into the community to help and later honoring first responders and victims at the team's Oct. 10 home opener. That helped them win the hearts of fans who carried a love of the game here from somewhere else, as well as those who were just discovering the charms of hockey's humble players and their mix of skill and rugged athleticism.

The drummers who marched across the packed plaza outside T-Mobile Arena before Wednesday's game echoed those heartbeats. Cheerleaders and loud music contributed to the festive occasion. The atmosphere wasn't traditional, and hooray for that.

Kerry Bubolz, the club's president, said early marketing studies had indicated the city could support a hockey team. Those reports didn't tell him everything.

"What's been so special has been the number of people we've met that have commented that the team has connected the community in a unique way that maybe the community didn't have before," he said. "It's a community that has a large number of transplants from other great markets around North America and this is the one thing that has kind of threaded it together in a powerful and unique way."

Steve York is a link in that thread. He stood toward the front of a line to buy playoff souvenirs at the team's practice rink Wednesday morning, a queue that snaked past racks of jerseys, caps, t-shirts and pennants. York said he watched hockey occasionally before the Golden Knights were born and he bought season tickets as kind of a civic duty. He's a convert now.

"I like the energy. I like the hometown feel," he said. "We always have visitors sit next to us in the two seats, and no matter where they come from — Canada, the East, the West, it doesn't matter — every single fan that comes from a different arena says that there's no place like T-Mobile Arena, with the energy. It's unique."

York is an air-traffic controller. Watching the Golden Knights should be relaxing for him. "I'm probably more stressed at a hockey game than I am at work," he said with a laugh. "I always say these guys are going to give me a heart attack."

The Golden Knights kept fans on the edge of their seats Wednesday and kept the Kings off the scoreboard. "Given the magnitude of where we're at and things that have happened this year and where we started and where we are now, I thought we did a really good job of playing a complete game," Schmidt said.

Vegas still must prove its game will hold up through the playoffs. And the Kings have too many players with Stanley Cup rings to go through this meekly. But for one night, the improbable became the possible and Elvis left the building with a Golden Knights playoff victory.

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Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen

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