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LAS VEGAS — Adin Hill has won eight games in the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs after winning 16 games in the entire regular season. In the span of a year, he’s gone from playing for a lottery team to being three victories away from winning the Stanley Cup.
More people watch his games at T-Mobile Arena than the amount of residents who live in his hometown of Comox, British Columbia. He plays goalie in a city in which their initial exposure to that position was a future Hall of Famer who set the standard by which all followers have been judged — for a franchise that’s just six years old.
Oh, and he never had any previous Stanley Cup playoff experience until his first game a month ago.
Championship teams all have defining traits. And if this is the year the Vegas Golden Knights capture their first-ever Stanley Cup, among those traits is their ability to find answers to colossal problems.
Hill just happens to be one of those answers. But it’s not like what he’s doing is anything new; he’s been that way all season. He was one of the answers for the question of how the Golden Knights would fare in net once Robin Lehner had an offseason hip surgery that forced him to miss the regular season.
Even though Logan Thompson started the majority of the games, Hill worked in tandem with the rookie to provide Vegas with the goaltending to finish with the best record in the Western Conference. He was there when Thompson was hurt in February and again toward the end of the regular season.
He was that constant when Laurent Brossoit, who took over from Thompson, sustained an injury in the second round against the Edmonton Oilers. Hill won three of his next four starts to close out the Oilers. Hill played well enough to give the Golden Knights a chance to win every game of the Western Conference final against the Dallas Stars, a series they won in six games.
All of that is what made Hill’s accomplishments in the Golden Knights’ 5-2 victory against the Florida Panthers in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final even more monumental. Because it was more than just the Golden Knights taking a lead in the series.
Hill provided another reminder of what has made him one of the Golden Knights’ strongest performers this postseason.
“I mean, it’s unreal. It’s kind of per usual now at this point, him making those saves and kind of bailing us out,” Golden Knights defenseman Shea Theodore said after Game 1. “He’s had our back the second he stepped in, and we’ve been fortunate to help him on the other end.”
NICK COUSINS WAS right there. He found a spot in the coverage that allowed him to be at the net front by himself so he could be on the other end of a Matthew Tkachuk centering pass to give the Panthers what would have been a 2-1 lead.
Hill was leaning toward Tkachuk before contorting his body back toward Cousins to use every fiber and sinew of his right arm to extend his stick in a manner that allowed his paddle to stop the puck just inches from the goal line, keeping the game tied at 1-1 barely a minute into the second period.
“A Hill To Die On.” “King of the Hill.” “Hill The Thrill.” “The Save.”
Pick whatever catchy phrase you want. It amounts to Hill’s save becoming arguably the defining moment of Game 1, one of the defining moments of this year’s playoffs, and if the Golden Knights win the Cup, potentially one of the defining moments of an entire franchise.
“We were talking about it in the room,” Golden Knights captain Mark Stone said. “That was an incredible save at a pretty important time in the game. He makes a huge save, [Alex Pietrangelo] makes an incredible defensive play right after to keep the puck out of the net, and then not long after [Shea] Theodore makes an incredible play to get us a lead.”
Brett Howden, Nicolas Roy and Zach Whitecloud were all on the bench when Hill made the save, and each of their recollections just adds to what made Hill and the stop itself even more massive for the Golden Knights.
Howden echoed what a number of players said about the save: It was the “a-ha” moment that forced the Golden Knights to confront the fact they needed to help out their netminder.
“I’ve seen it live, I saw a couple pictures of it after but to see how close it was? It was just inches away or even just [Cousins] raising the puck, it could have been in,” Howden said. “I thought it was going in and saw that it didn’t go in. I was in disbelief and then the play started coming back the other way. Right then, we kinda looked at each other and were like, ‘Alright. He’s doing everything he can. We gotta get going here.'”
You mean there were no four-letter words used at that moment?
“Uh, there probably were some words like that,” Howden smiled.
Roy had just come onto the Golden Knights bench and said he did not actually see Hill’s save when it happened. His first viewing of it was when he went back and watched on social media.
“I heard the guys stand up and cheer for Adin, but I didn’t see it until after the game,” Roy said. “It was a game-changer for sure.”
Whitecloud said everything about the moment — from Hill’s save to watching Pietrangelo clear the puck down to seeing the puck go in the air after Pietrangelo’s clearance — made him feel tense for the three or so seconds it took for everything to play out in real time.
“When you’re watching, you’re tense. When you’re out there, it’s easy because you’re not as tense,” Whitecloud explained. “When you are watching your friends and brothers out there battling — for me anyway — I get tense. I watch, almost like I am a fan! That sort of thing can turn a game. When you look at those breaks, you’re like, ‘That’s a break. That’s one we need.'”
So what did Hill, the individual who authored such a moment, have to say about everything?
“The save? It kind of played through on a little screen on a cross to Tkachuk on his [strong] side and I kinda flew across to the [strong side] and then I saw him throwing it backdoor and Cousins was there,” Hill said matter-of-factly. “I reached out with my stick and was able to track it and got a piece of it with my paddle. It felt good!”
SPEAK TO ANYONE who works for an NHL team’s in-game production staff. They’ll tell you about how everything is subject to change. Unless that subject is how the Golden Knights treat the goaltender when it comes time to do the starting lineup at T-Mobile Arena.
There have been games in which Golden Knights public address announcer Bruce Cusick can’t even be heard announcing a goalie’s name — because the applause along with the music drowns out his voice.
Plenty of teams show a graphic of the player in the starting lineup on the video board before cutting to a live feed of them on the ice as they’re being announced. But in Vegas, they have a camera that does a gradual close up on the goalies that both creates an imposing figure, while also underscoring the importance that being “the starting goalie for the Vegas Golden Knights” means something substantial to many people.
There will be a time when this particular piece of the Golden Knights’ dynamic changes. For now, Vegas is a market that lacks several decades of team history that fans talk about with reverence. Vegas has what it knows, and what the city knows is that anyone who wears that mask and those pads better come correct or not even come at all.
So much can be said about the impact Marc-Andre Fleury had on the franchise during his four seasons in Vegas. What Fleury did and how he did it is part of the foundation for why there is such a passion about who plays in net for the Golden Knights.
“Honestly, it’s a little bit of pressure but it’s also really exciting for these guys because you could hear it yesterday when they named him and how loud it was,” Roy said of Hill. “It’s been unreal. I think every goalie who comes through this organization has had a real good time. You look at Flower. I think he was basically almost a God here.”
Nobody can say for certain what Hill’s impact will be whenever he does move on from the Golden Knights — he’s a pending unrestricted free agent, by the way. During this playoff run, his popularity continues to surge. Hill didn’t just receive a loud ovation when the starting lineups were read before Game 1: Hill received the loudest ovation of anyone, and that includes fan favorites like William Carrier and an All-Star like Pietrangelo.
There are more subtle nods too, such as when he made a save in the first period and once the play was whistled dead, the Golden Knights’ in-game production staff made the conscious decision to play the theme song from “King of the Hill.”
So why is there so much love?
He’s always been there for the team this season. He has been the same person whether he was playing or sitting. He came through when others were injured. The performances that have allowed the Golden Knights to be three wins away from winning the title that has come to define their win-at-all-costs mentality.
All of this is why the majority of the 18,432 fans who were in attendance for Game 1 screamed his name while celebrating every save he made.
It’s also why with three more wins Hill could be more than just a Golden Knight. He has a chance to possibly be king in a city that desperately wants a crown.
“He’s competed, he’s been a great teammate, he works hard, he pays attention to the details, he wants to get better,” said Whitecloud, whose stall is next to Hill’s at the team’s practice facility in Summerlin, Nev. “You’ll play for a guy like that any day of the week.”