LAS VEGAS — There was a general curiosity from Lightning players, and others around the league, what exactly hockey would look like in Las Vegas.
And before Tampa Bay played its first-ever game against the expansion Golden Knights tonight, coach Jon Cooper got a sneak peek Sunday night, catching the Vegas-Florida game "as a fan."
Cooper was blown away, from the raucous and sold-out T-Mobile Arena to the first-place Golden Knights' shootout win.
"Without even looking at the product on the ice, the product outside and the venue — it was spectacular," Cooper said. "I just thought, right away, 'What a coup for the NHL to open up shop here.' They've done an unbelievable job. The band up top. The chants, right into the goal song. Really well done."
Several hundred Lightning fans have made the trip to Sin City, from as far as Newfoundland, to capture the experience. Some of the players' families are in town, and they'll see a very good product on the ice, too. Vegas paid a heavy price — a $500 million expansion fee — but was rewarded with a very strong team through the expansion draft. That includes former Lightning forward Jonathan Marchessault, who has 29 points in 29 games (11 goals).
The Golden Knights lead the Pacific Division (21-9-2), their 44 points just six shy of the best-in-the-NHL Lightning. The teams have identical home records of 13-2-1. The notion of this being a potential Stanley Cup final preview is not as silly as one would have predicted before the season.
"It's pretty remarkable what's going on," Cooper said. "You're looking for holes on that team, and you just don't see them. They roll four lines at you, six 'D.' They've played four or five goalies and continue to win, because their team is really good. It was pretty impressive to watch."
Center Tyler Johnson, a Spokane, Wash. native, said he loves the fact that teams out West are being added. That includes allowing Seattle to make a bid to be the 32nd NHL team.
"I think it'd be awesome," Johnson said. "The guys that play there will love it. The city, they love the pro sports teams. They have a really good following. It's really close to Vancouver, so you'd get Canadians coming down. I think it's a great option."
Those who have already played in Vegas have rave reviews. And not just for the nightlife.
"It's awesome playing there," said Blues forward Brayden Schenn. "Not just because you're in Vegas. It's the production and music. It's always loud. And we played there on a Saturday night. It was awesome."
The Lightning has been in Vegas since Saturday night, following its win at the Avalanche. Tampa Bay, staying near the strip, had an off day on Sunday, with a crisp, hour-long practice on Monday at T-Mobile Arena.
"If you had to pick a place to have a couple days off, this shoots somewhere to the top of the list," Cooper quipped. "We're on a 10-day road trip. And it's good to get away from the rink a little bit. But we came here to win a game."
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Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.