LAS VEGAS -- On their first trip to the desert this season, the Winnipeg Jets had the option to arrive early. So the team now just a point out of first place in the Western Conference took advantage of a scheduling oddity that allowed them to head to Las Vegas a full three days before their first game against the upstart Vegas Golden Knights.
They lost 5-2.
The Jets, of course, are not alone in coming up empty-handed after a trip to Vegas. The Knights are tied for first place in the Western Conference after 33 games, due in large part to their 14-2-1 record at T-Mobile Arena.
How did this expansion franchise, a ragtag group of castoffs from other NHL teams, win all those home games, outscoring opponents 63-41 and dominating some of the best teams in the league -- especially since they've been outscored 57-51 in going a pedestrian 8-7-1 on the road?
"I don't know. What's your theory?" asked goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, deflecting my question like a puck off the blocker.
My theory? OK, here it goes: Every team that's played the Golden Knights on the road has suffered from an acute strain of the "Vegas Flu," a contagious infirmity that's the result of late nights at the casino tables or the clubs that surround them, getting swallowed up by the 24-hour party of Sin City, and being so hungover that they're only one strong body check away from soiling themselves, like Nick Brophy of the Hyannisport Presidents at the beginning of "Slap Shot."
That's my theory.
"I like that. That sounds good," he said. "I don't know if that's part of it. But then I don't have every team's agenda."
Ask the Golden Knights, and they'll agree that the Vegas Flu could very well be a factor in their team's success on home ice. Not the main factor. Not the majority of the sum total of all the factors.
But certainly a factor.
"I think so, for sure," said Nate Schmidt, Golden Knights defenseman. "You fly in. See the bright lights. Especially when you're staying near The Strip. If you stay down there, it's hard. Everywhere you walk, you see it."
It's an issue that hasn't gone unnoticed by visiting teams. "The problem is that there are 'last calls' in most cities. Well, there's no last call in Las Vegas," one Western Conference executive told ESPN. "You can drink. You can do whatever. It never shuts down."
Schmidt said that visiting the city for the first time can be like starring in "The Hangover": Vegas has you now...
"There's just something about it. There's no windows. No doors. No clocks. Nothing. There's just pumped-in oxygen," he said.
"When we go into a city, we have a routine. Get in. Put your stuff down. Change. Go to dinner. Hang out with the guys. Come back. Watch some TV. But here, there are a few more things to do. Maybe you do some little thing that just throws your clock off. It doesn't take much. And we'll take anything that throws you off of your game."
So is the Vegas Flu fact or fiction?
A brief history of 'hockey flu'
In the 1970s, there was a strain discovered in Pennsylvania called the "Philadelphia Flu" that would affect teams in town to face the Flyers. Back then, they were the Broad Street Bullies, a collection of talented thugs that could score on you and pummel your face with equal proficiency. Curiously, players would develop symptoms of the Philadelphia Flu for one night, preventing them from playing the Flyers, and then would miraculously recover their full health after the game was over.
For roughly the last three decades, another strain was found in Vancouver called the "Roxy Flu." If one were to have studied its genome, one would find a similar viral structure to that of the Vegas Flu. Centered around the Roxy club, it infected visiting players the night before games against the Vancouver Canucks, resulting in underwhelming play and frequent defeats. (That night when Patrick Kane, John Madden and Kris Versteeg were photographed shirtless inside a limo with three local women? Roxy Flu.)
"Maybe the Roxy makes a game a bit more one-sided or slows a team down enough that they can't come into our building and steal one," Ryan Kesler, then of the Canucks, told ESPN in 2011. "I think it definitely limits reaction times, if you know what I mean."
When it comes to strains of flu like the Roxy one, the trick for home teams is to never catch it yourself.
If the Vegas Flu exists, the Golden Knights are seemingly inoculated against it.
The Knights, by and large, have bought or rented houses in Summerlin, a town located about 25 minutes from the heart of Sin City. It's home to their practice rink. There are about as many Trader Joe's as there are hotel and casinos out there.
Plus, they're a bit blasé about The Strip now that they're locals. Forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare compared living in Vegas to living in Paris: You see the Eiffel Tower every day, but that doesn't mean you're taking that elevator to the top every night.
"We're blind to it," Bellemare said. "But it's a town of temptation. I mean, if you had come here and you have only one trip in the year, would you stay in your bedroom the whole time?"
Probably not. But if you did, your bedroom's only a few steps away from slot machines, card tables and a gigantic room where time is swallowed up by the blinking lights, artificial smells and opaque walls.
Depending on where one is staying.
How NHL teams are playing Vegas
Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos sat in his locker stall after the Golden Knights stunned the Lightning, 4-3, on a power-play goal with 2.3 seconds remaining in regulation.
His team entered the game with the NHL's best record. They lost. The Pittsburgh Penguins entered their game in Vegas as defending Stanley Cup champions. They lost. The Golden Knights have faced seven teams that were in playoff seeds as of Tuesday. All seven lost to the expansion team.
What is going on here?
"There's probably a few reasons," Stamkos said, before laughing to himself. "This is, uh, a pretty entertaining city to be in for teams. I can't speak for other teams, but ..."
He didn't elaborate.
St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong saw his team lose a 3-2 overtime decision to the Golden Knights in October. To date, he's one of the few NHL GMs who have suggested the Vegas Flu could be a factor for visiting teams.
"There's a lot to distract you here in Vegas" he told TSN's Hockey Central. "I think the first couple of years, it's certainly going to happen. That's going to test, quite honestly, the maturity of our team.
"We do talk about it; we are not naive," he continued. "What we are trying to do is lob the ball and say, 'It's Vegas and it's a great opportunity for you guys to have some fun and blow off some steam and become a team, but that's for after the game.'"
Teams aren't being strict with their players when visiting Vegas. ESPN reached out to seven NHL teams that have played at the Golden Knights this season. All seven indicated that there were no special curfews or restrictions placed on players during their time in Sin City.
In speaking with these teams, there are a few common threads in how visitors are doing their best to avoid the Vegas Flu.
Four of the seven teams stayed at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, located on The Strip within walking distance to T-Mobile Arena. Two stayed in casino hotels. One stayed at the Four Seasons, located down The Strip from the arena.
Staying at the Mandarin Oriental is notable for two reasons. First is that there is no casino inside the hotel, so players don't face the same level of ready temptation that they might face in a different hotel.
(The Chicago Blackhawks, meanwhile, stayed at the Bellagio.)
Second, the Mandarin Oriental is a smoke-free hotel, standing in stark contrast with the other hotel options around the arena.
Air quality in Vegas is a factor in the Flu. There's the desert air that leaves noses and throats feeling raw. But then there's the combination of tobacco smoke and the artificial fragrances used to cover it that's found in nearly every casino hotel.
It's a combination that one organization believes is toxic.
"The chemicals that create the so-called ambience in the casinos tend to interact with the smoke and create a synergistic effect. So you're really creating another problem," said Angel DeFazio, president of the Las Vegas-based National Toxic Encephalopathy Foundation, an advocacy organization that supports those adversely affected by everyday chemicals and toxins.
"There are a lot of casino workers that have gotten sick through the air freshening systems. They tend to have asthma-like symptoms that clear up when they leave the casino. The medical term for this is R.A.D.S. -- Reactive Airway Disorder Syndrome."
(For the record, this does not sound rad.)
While visiting players can't avoid air quality issues, those staying at the Mandarin Oriental at least aren't marinating in them.
Threat of the Vegas Flu has also influenced travel schedules. Simply put, teams are assuming their players are going to have their fun in the desert and are approaching the Vegas trip as a potential team-building experience through that fun.
"There are parts of the schedule where these guys are going to do a little team bonding and have some fun, and that's fine by me. It's all about getting in here and being ready to work," said coach Bob Boughner, whose Florida Panthers lost 5-2 to the Knights in their visit.
One aspect of team building that's been prevalent for those visiting Las Vegas? That rite of passage for first-year players, the rookie dinner.
For the uninitiated, the rookie dinner is one in which the freshmen on the team are expected to pay for the team's restaurant tab, which is inflated by the older players with high-priced entrees and the most expensive bottles of wine on the list. It's not uncommon for rookies to be told to dedicate their first paycheck to the rookie dinner, to ensure they have enough to cover the tab.
Now, imagine that all playing out in a Vegas restaurant where the prices can be three times higher than most places on the road.
"No comment," said Florida veteran Derek MacKenzie with a smile, when asked about a Vegas rookie dinner. "But to hang out to with the guys sometimes is a good way to bond as a team."
To facilitate that bonding -- and to encourage good behavior around the games vs. the Golden Knights -- teams are building off-days and extended stays around their Vegas trips.
The Jets, 5-2 losers to the Knights, were in Vegas for three days before playing them. The Carolina Hurricanes, 3-2 shootout winners against the Knights, added a day after their game for a 'Vegas Night,' in the hopes that players didn't party too hard before the game. The Tampa Bay Lightning arrived on a Sunday for a Tuesday game that they lost, 4-3. So did the Blackhawks, who skated to a very pedestrian 4-2 loss to the Knights.
The Dallas Stars, meanwhile, may have taken the safest approach to their Vegas trip: Making it their father/mentor trip, which certainly helped keep the guys in line.
These scheduling decisions are one reason why some believe the Flu might be all hype.
"The teams that come in, play a game, and then they stay later ... why wouldn't they be 100 percent when they play us?" Vegas winger James Neal said.
"I think it's overblown," Golden Knights GM George McPhee said of the Flu. "I'd be more worried about the next game they're playing than playing us, because a lot of teams stay over after our game and have some fun."
Without factoring in the Panthers and Lightning, teams were 9-6-0 in their games immediately following their Vegas trip, outscoring opponents 50-39.
Maybe they rested up on the plane and got over their Flu. If they ever had it to begin with.
If not the 'Vegas Flu,' then what?
The Golden Knights have their share of Vegas Flu truthers.
"I mean, there's a lot of cities where you can party. Before Vegas, it was somewhere else. It's not like no one was partying before we had a team, and now everyone's like 'let's party,'" goalie Malcolm Subban said.
"I think guys are smart," forward Cody Eakin said. "Young guys are focused and driven and able to keep themselves away from the nightlife. Everyone is going to know themselves, know their bodies and know their limits."
Vegas winger Reilly Smith doesn't completely dismiss the Vegas Flu. But he also doesn't want it to negate or overshadow his team's accomplishments.
"You don't want [the Flu] to take too much credit away from us," he said.
So let's look beyond it. The Knights are third in the NHL in goals per game at 3.45 and are ninth in even-strength goals at 70 in 33 games. They're a positive possession team (50.62 in Corsi for percentage). Their opponents haven't played exceptionally well in defeat, but the Knights have played exceptionally well in victory.
"The No. 1 answer for their success is that they're a good team," Stamkos said. "There's no question that they're a very well-coached team, with guys that work extremely hard. They've got some very good offensive players, and a great goalie. They're a really good team in this league."
Said Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman: "They have four lines that go north. They play with speed. They play with intensity. It's not a fluke they have a great home record and are sitting first in their division. At first, it might have been. But this far in, it's not a fluke."
The Golden Knights are winning at home at a clip not seen in modern NHL expansion history.
Since 1991, when the San Jose Sharks entered the League, no first-year team has had a winning record at home when you factor in overtime losses, which the NHL began counting in 1999. If you don't factor them in, then the Wild and Blue Jackets were both over .500, but barely.
One reason for their success? The Knights can pounce on opponents.
"We've scored a lot of first goals at home. And you can see our record when we score the first goal of the game," Smith said.
The Knights are 14-1-0 when scoring first this season, among the best records in the NHL. While an early lead naturally gives them confidence, it also immediately lights a fire under sellout crowds that have produced playoff atmospheres at T-Mobile Arena all season, whether it's a game between Fleury and the Penguins or the Panthers coming in for a 5 p.m. Sunday visit.
"When teams come here, the first thing they talk about is the atmosphere at the rink, so you know it's a factor. They give us so much energy," Subban said.
That energy between the Knights and their fans is unique. It's a bond forged under the most tragic of circumstances.
Playing for Vegas
Everyone has a theory about the Golden Knights. Even NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
"There's something emotional going on there. This team came into being in the wake of a horrific tragedy in Las Vegas," he said at an event in New York last month.
On Oct. 1, a gunman opened fire on a musical festival on the Las Vegas Strip, leaving 58 people dead and 546 injured. Everywhere you look, there are reminders of that day: The "Vegas Strong" slogans, which are also found on the nameplates of Golden Knight fans' jerseys; the metal pylons that have been planted on the sidewalks near Las Vegas Boulevard, to protect from future attacks; and at home games, those moments when the Knights honor victims' families and first responders, a tradition that started on Oct. 10 at their inaugural home game, an emotional 5-2 win over the Arizona Coyotes.
"Here you have a team of players that just moved to their new adopted home, and what they did was go into the community, as hockey players do, and they met first responders and survivors," Bettman said. "I don't think their success at home is a coincidence."
It's not, according to the Knights.
"With everything that happened, we've been playing for more than just a team. More than just a score. We've been playing for the city," Bellemare said.
"Maybe it's just the way that it reminds us that we're just playing hockey, and everything else means so much more than just winning a game. Especially in the situation that we were. A lot people look up to us. This is going to help us pass those tough days. You hear the fans talking to us in the first three weeks in the season. Kind of a thank you. That they needed that. After that, we surged on it. What that jump start did was that it made us realize that this is bigger than us. Be consistent each game, give 110 percent. Buy in on it."
The Golden Knights have bought in to what coach Gerard Gallant is selling, playing a relentless style of attacking hockey that rolls four lines and three defensive pairings, all of whom are playing for their ice time. There are no stars. There are no captains.
There is a discernible chip on the shoulders of these castoffs, who have relished the chance to gain some measure of vengeance against their former teams, and the chance to blossom in the increased roles they've been given by the Vegas coaches. Their second-leading goal scorer this season, with 15? William Karlsson, who is one goal away from matching his total in three seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets, while skating over five minutes more per game than last season.
Karlsson is a restricted free agent next summer. In fact, the Knights have just 13 players under contract for next season. Most players are trying to build a case to remain here through the trade deadline, to stick with a room they like in a town they enjoy. They want to earn a contract to remain here next season or, failing that, for a contract elsewhere.
It's like there's a three-ton carrot dangling in front of them at all times; and yet, as an expansion team no one expected to have this success, they're almost playing with house money.
"We all know it's our first year. But we knew we got some good hockey players. It's not a typical expansion team," said Gallant. "I believe in our team every night. We're playing top, top teams, and we're hanging with them. And we're as good as those teams that we've beaten."
Las Vegas has been one of the toughest places to play this season, and the Golden Knights have been one the NHL's most dominant teams.
Maybe it's the offensive firepower. Maybe it's the fans. Maybe it's the Vegas Flu. Whatever it is, when you skate into town to face the Golden Knights, only one thing is clear this season:
Vegas has you now.
"As the saying goes: The house always wins in Vegas," Schmidt said. "The city doesn't look like this because the visitors are winners."