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Golden Knights must win West to justify Gerard Gallant firing

Do you remember the moment?

It came in the capital city of a Canadian province, in Game 5 of a best-of-seven Western Conference Final, just the second expansion team in major league professional sports since 1960 to reach a championship series in its first season.

There they were, Golden Knights players basking in the improbability of it all. Misfits united.

In one corner of Bell MTS Place, with teammates surrounding him, Deryk Engelland clutched the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl, meaning Vegas had advanced to the Stanley Cup Final after a 2-1 victory over Winnipeg.

The franchise is now in its third year of existence and about to begin an oh-so-peculiar playoff tournament.

In Edmonton. In a hub. In an arena with no fans. Incredible.

And yet, even with the bizarre setting and circumstances created by COVID-19, nothing short of repeating its historical run in 2017-18 should be considered a success.

That’s right. Western Conference champions or bust.

That’s the standard by which you should be held when firing such a successful head coach in midseason.

Pressure to win

Not just any head coach. In two-plus seasons, Gerard Gallant had directed the Knights to that Stanley Cup Final and a second playoff berth. Most guys get a contract extension and hefty raise with that resume.

The Knights certainly weren’t tearing things up when they fired Gallant — a 24-19-6 record, ninth in points percentage among Western teams, tied with Winnipeg for the final wild-card spot — but you would think he had built up some level of equity.

No matter how much he and management disagreed on specific aspects in which Gallant ran the team — and there were obviously many — making that specific call at that specific time rightly put a whole lot of pressure on the Knights to now win big. Like really, really big.

“The coaching change was not easy,” Knights owner Bill Foley said. “(Gallant) is a great guy and a skilled coach. It’s just at that time, all of us felt we needed to do something a little different. That was a decision made by (president of hockey operations George McPhee and general manager Kelly McCrimmon), and I’m glad they included me and asked my opinion.”

Pete DeBoer replaced Gallant and has said more than once that this current Golden Knights team is the most talented he has coached. It’s no small compliment, given DeBoer took New Jersey and San Jose to a Stanley Cup Final.

But that’s the thing. Vegas is the best side he has directed.

Under DeBoer, the Knights were 15-5-2, one of hockey’s hottest teams and yet not healthy at all spots, when the coronavirus pause commenced. But players reported to a shortened training camp healed and ready to compete. The only issue now is the undisclosed minor injury that forward Max Pacioretty suffered in camp.

The Knights are back to playing fast again. Their blue line remains incomplete but much deeper with the trade deadline acquisition of Alec Martinez. The forward lines are incredibly deep. You can choose either Marc-Andre Fleury or Robin Lehner in net. Most every analytic suggests few, if any, teams match the Knights in overall strengths.

Translation: There should be no excuses.

Built to win

“We built this team to win now,” Foley said. “When we came into the league, we were picked to finish dead last. And then we surprised everybody. I would say we overachieved that first year. Last year, we had a better team than the first, even though we were eliminated in the first round.

“I believe this (current) team is the best we’ve had. Our goal is to win the Stanley Cup. Point blank. Period. I think we’ve had a successful season, but we are poised to have a really successful one.”

It must include at least a conference title to be considered as such.

When you make that sort of coaching move at that point in a season, anything short is a massive underachievement.

Do you remember the moment?

For the Golden Knights, in this bizarre 2019-20 season, it’s another one or bust.

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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