For three seasons, James Neal was a fan favorite for the Dallas Stars, earning the nickname “The Real Deal” and selling plenty of jerseys.
But on Friday night at American Airlines Center, Neal might have officially become Public Enemy Number One by scoring both goals for the expansion Vegas Golden Knights in a shocking 2-1 season-opening win against the Stars.
Vegas is the first NHL expansion team to win its inaugural game since Ottawa and Tampa Bay both accomplished that feat in 1992.
Neal scored twice in the third period, both tallies coming against Kari Lehtonen, who relieved Stars No. 1 goaltender Ben Bishop, who left the game early in the third with a cut to the head. Earlier in the game, Neal had raised the ire of Stars fans after leveling Tyler Seguin, who scored the Stars’ only goal, with a physical check late in the second period.
Four minutes into the final period, a shot by ex-Star Reilly Smith passed through Bishop’s mask and struck him in the head, drawing blood. Bishop left the ice on his own as Lehtonen, the Stars’ starting netminder the past few seasons, entered. Bishop had stopped all 19 shots he faced prior to departing.
Dallas had taken the lead late in the second period when Seguin, who led the Stars with 72 points last season, scored on a redirect with Dallas on the power play just 2:59 before the second intermission.
Vegas had nearly tied it with 53 seconds remaining in the second, but Brendan Leipsic’s wrist shot from the slot had been whistled dead before it crossed the line. Leipsic’s shot had gotten under Bishop, who then fell backwards. It then appeared that Stars defenseman John Klingberg knocked the puck into his own net. Video review determined that the referee had whistled play dead prior to the puck crossing, so the on-ice call of no goal stood.
Neal’s first goal came 9:33 into the third when he sent a wrist shot past Lehtonen, who had stopped the first four shots he faced in relief of Bishop, tying the game at one. Neal then delivered the eventual game-winner with 2:44 remaining when he roofed a wrist shot into the top of the Dallas net from the right side, stunning a sellout crowd that was celebrating the beginning of the Stars’ 25th anniversary season in Dallas. Another former Star, Cody Eakin, who Vegas had selected in the NHL Expansion Draft this summer, assisted on Neal’s second.
Besides Neal, the other big star for the Golden Knights was veteran goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who stopped 45 of the 46 shots he faced. Lehtonen stopped 9 of the 11 shots he faced in relief of Bishop.
One positive for Dallas from this loss was their penalty kill keeping the Vegas power play off the board, despite the Golden Knights having the man advantage seven times.
The Stars, who were also playing their first game under new head coach Ken Hitchcock, return to the ice Saturday at St. Louis, the club Hitchcock coached before being fired last winter. Hitchcock, who led Dallas to the Stanley Cup championship in 1999, is beginning his second stint with the Stars.
Stephen Hunt is a Frisco-based freelance writer.
First Period—None. Penalties—Radulov, DAL, (interference), 3:21; Marchessault, VGK, (roughing), 9:10; Roussel, DAL, (tripping), 11:54; Roussel, DAL, (interference), 17:33; Roussel, DAL, (interference), 19:34.
Second Period—1, Dallas, Seguin 1 (Shore, Klingberg), 17:01 (pp). Penalties—Haula, VGK, (slashing), 8:30; Radulov, DAL, (slashing), 12:27; Miller, VGK, (holding), 16:19; Hamhuis, DAL, (slashing), 17:22.
Third Period—2, Vegas, Neal 1 (Sbisa, Schmidt), 10:27. 3, Vegas, Neal 2 (Eakin, Garrison), 17:16. Penalties—Neal, VGK, (slashing), 6:15; Benn, DAL, (slashing), 6:15; Schmidt, VGK, (delay of game), 7:23; Benn, DAL, (high sticking), 10:56.
Shots on Goal—Vegas 10-8-12—30. Dallas 14-21-11—46.
Power-play opportunities—Vegas 0 of 7; Dallas 1 of 4.
Goalies—Vegas, Fleury 1-0-0 (46 shots-45 saves). Dallas, Lehtonen 0-1-0 (11-9), Bishop 0-0-0 (19-19).
A—18,532 (18,532). T—2:42. Referees—Kendrick Nicholson, Dan O’Halloran. Linesmen—Darren Gibbs, Matt MacPherson.
Stars at Blues
7 p.m. Saturday, FSSW