LAS VEGAS - The National Hockey League works in Las Vegas. 

For a place that feels so far away from hockey – whether it’s the palm trees, blackjack tables or fans making their way into the stadium wearing shorts in the thick of December – the atmosphere inside T-Mobile Arena is spot on. 

Tuesday, the home of the NHL’s newest team was filled with almost 18,000 screaming fans as the Vegas Golden Knights beat the Tampa Bay Lighting 4-3 on a go-ahead goal by defenceman Shea Theodore with 2.3 seconds left in the third period. 

The win marked the seventh in eight games for the Golden Knights and moved them into a tie with the Los Angeles Kings for first in the Pacific Division. 

Knights forward David Perron called it “our biggest game of the year.”

The fans know hockey and have taken quickly to their new franchise, cheering for a third-period penalty kill almost as loudly as a second-period goal that tied the game. Power-play lines are discussed as fans await their concessions. Following the win, chants of “Let’s go Knights!” could be heard on The Strip and in nearby casinos. It was like the team had been there for years. 

“It was an unbelievable atmosphere. We can tell they had some Tampa fans but our fans were much louder and much more into it,” Theodore told reporters after the win.  

The arena – just a short walk away from many of Vegas’ biggest hotels – has been a hit with the fan base. Even the little things, whether it was Carrot Top getting pelted by snow on the big screen, the second period rendition of Sweet Golden Knights or a knight yanking a sword out of stone at centre ice just prior to puck drop, added a nice touch. 

It’s been a long time coming. 

The city of Las Vegas has never really had a taste of the major professional sports scene beyond the sportsbooks. For decades, leagues avoided awarding a team to Vegas over the proximity to sports gambling and a lack of a consistent local fan base. 

Despite the approximate 40 million people who visit Vegas each year, the city has a population of about 600,000 – making it the 28th largest city in the United States. 

But that didn’t deter Bill Foley, a Texas-born businessman who began the process of bringing Vegas its first major sports franchise in 2014. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman gave the go-ahead for Foley’s group to conduct a season ticket drive the following February to gauge interest in the team. On its first two days, the drive achieved half of its desired goal of 10,000 and was completed around two months later.    

The response impressed Bettman and a window was opened for potential owners to bid on an expansion team. 

A year later, owners would unanimously approve Foley’s bid – which had collected more than 15,000 season-ticket deposits dating back to the year before – to become the NHL’s 31st franchise.

“Well, Las Vegas, we did it! We want everyone to be a fan and we’re dedicated to it,” Foley said at the Encore, a luxury hotel at the north end of The Strip.

“The Las Vegas market was intriguing.” Bettman said. “The worldwide reputation it has was appealing and it’s a city that was ready for major league sports.”

But one thing that almost no one expected was the degree of the team’s early-season success. Vegas (22-9-2) became the fastest expansion team in NHL history to reach 20 wins and they sit in a four-way tie for second in the NHL with 46 points. They’re well on their way to eclipsing the 83-point 1993-94 Florida Panthers as the best expansion team ever. 

Hanging in the rafters at NHL arenas are often banners celebrating retired numbers, division titles, conference championships or Stanley Cups. The Golden Knights have none of those and instead hang banners of each of the 30 other teams. 

Just 33 games into their franchise's history, there’s still a long way to go. But if they keep up their winning ways, soon enough they might have some of their own to hang.