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GLENDALE, Ariz. — The last time they shared the same sheet of ice, Marc-Andre Fleury and Rick Tocchet were lifting hockey’s ultimate prize, the Stanley Cup, for a second successive June.
Fast forward four months, and they both moved on from Pittsburgh to become the faces of the NHL’s youngest teams — Fleury’s expansion Vegas Golden Knights and the team with the NHL’s youngest roster, Tocchet’s Arizona Coyotes.
Only one game into the NHL season, they’ll meet Saturday night at Gila River Arena in the Coyotes’ home opener — and the initial game in what the league envisions as its first desert city rivalry.
To quickly percolate it, the league will match the Golden Knights and Coyotes five times this season, including Vegas’ first home game Tuesday night.
“They should embrace that,” Tocchet, the new Coyotes coach, said of his players. “That should give them some juice. But we’re not looking for dipsy doodles and a circus show, we don’t want that, right?”
No, the circus acts can wait for Vegas — even if the Golden Knights put on quite a show by winning the first game in franchise history, beating Dallas 2-1 on Friday night behind Fleury’s 45 saves and former Penguins teammate James Neal’s two goals, both in the third period.
“It was a great win for our franchise and we’re pretty excited,” Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant said, aware that many who watched back in Las Vegas are reeling from the horrific mass shooting that killed 58 at a country music concert last weekend. “It was a sad thing that happened in Vegas this week and this helps with the healing.”
Neal missed the entire preseason with a broken hand that occurred in the playoffs last spring, only to do what he always seems to do, score goals.
“It was unbelievable,” Neal said of his night, though he also could have been referring to Fleury’s remarkable performance in his first NHL game in anything but a Penguins jersey.
“Our goalie was outstanding,” Gallant said. “He made some great saves and kept us in it.”
Tocchet might have used the same word Neal did “unbelievable” to describe the Coyotes’ 5-4 loss at Anaheim on Thursday night, but in a different way.
A team that is carrying eight players who are a college-like 22 years or younger opened a 4-1 lead behind goals by Anthony Duclair, Clayton Keller, Max Domi and Christian Fischer. But the Coyotes’ inexperience began to show as they gave up four consecutive goals, two in the third period, to lose 5-4.
“We started to back up, a couple of key players making some bad giveaways and that’s what happens,” said Tocchet, a former Coyotes player and assistant coach who succeeded longtime coach Dave Tippett. “It’s a learning lesson, a tough one, because it’s a game we would like to have. They stuck with it and we didn’t.”
With the Golden Knights playing back-to-back games, backup Malcolm Subban might start in goal for the Golden Knights.
The Coyotes, however, expect to start No. 1 goalie Antti Raanta, who missed nearly all of training camp and the opener with a lower-body injury, but went through a full practice Friday without problems.
“I feel good, every day (there’s) been progress. It’s been feeling good,” said Raanta, who replaces longtime Arizona starter Mike Smith after previously being Henrik Lundqvist’s backup with the New York Rangers.
Arizona backup Louis Dominque started in Anaheim and allowed five goals on 41 shots.
“We gave them probably two or three freebies,” Tocchet said.
The Golden Knights posed an uncommon scouting challenge because they’re a brand-new franchise but, as Tocchet said: “You know the players, they’ve got a lot of veteran players over there. The team’s new, but not the players and the coach.
This rivalry between two cities only five hours and lots of unoccupied desert apart is new, too, but it probably won’t feel that way for long.
“It’s going to be pretty cool to go there (to Las Vegas) and for hockey,” Arizona defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson said.