by Lindsey Willhite | AHL On The Beat
When Chicago Wolves goaltender Max Lagace signed a free-agent contract with the Vegas Golden Knights in July 2017, his plan for the season was simple.
“In my mind, I was going to fight for a spot here,” said Lagace, referring to Chicago and the Wolves.
That’s sort of what happened. Lagace met fellow free-agent signee Oscar Dansk in training camp and they became good friends. So while they competed to become the Wolves’ No. 1 goalie when the season began, it certainly wasn’t a fight.
Then came a series of circumstances that led to the most amazing year of Lagace’s life. That is, if you consider dressing for every game of the Stanley Cup Final to be amazing.
Crazy things started happening to Vegas less than a month into last season. Top goalie Marc-Andre Fleury suffered an injury. So did backup Malcolm Subban. That meant Lagace and Dansk became Vegas’ goaltenders even though neither had any NHL experience.
Then Dansk, just three days after recording the first shutout in Vegas history, suffered his own injury on Oct. 30, which meant Lagace – who was never drafted by an NHL team – became the Golden Knights’ main man for more than a month.
“Obviously, I never came through the front door as a first-round draft pick,” Lagace said. “I think every guy will tell you they’ve had thoughts of, ‘Oh, my God, what am I doing here? Am I going to make it ever?’ But you just stick with it. If you show up at the rink and put in the hours, good things are going to happen eventually.
“It can be luck like I had last year. As much as it was great, there was a little luck in there.”
The good fortune wasn’t just the fact he got to start 13 games from Halloween through Dec. 9. His first NHL win happened to come on Nov. 4 at Ottawa, which was close enough for his parents (Manon and Gill), brother, aunt, uncle, grandmother, godfather and his billet family to be in attendance to witness the milestone. As the final seconds ticked away during Vegas’ one-goal win, the television cameras kept panning to his happy family.
“That was great,” Lagace said. “That meant a lot for me.”
The end of Lagace’s season might have been even greater. After shattering the Chicago Wolves record for saves in a game when he posted 72 stops in the team’s triple-overtime Calder Cup playoff loss to the Rockford IceHogs, Lagace was called to Vegas to be a black ace for the team’s Stanley Cup playoff run.
It didn’t appear to be much more than an extended practice stint, but then Subban suffered an injury after Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.
That meant Lagace dressed and served as Fleury’s backup for each of Vegas’ final eight games – the last three games of the Western Conference Finals and all five Stanley Cup Final contests against the Washington Capitals.
He celebrated on the ice with his teammates when the Golden Knights clinched the Stanley Cup berth – and he suffered in the dressing room with them when the Capitals captured the Cup.
“Sometimes I was so nervous because I saw those guys work and it was just amazing to see how they wanted it and how they bonded together to make it happen,” Lagace said. “They were such a great group and you want to see them win so bad. It was heartbreaking to see that.”
Though Lagace didn’t play in the postseason, he gained invaluable knowledge working together with Fleury and Vegas goalie coach Dave Prior.
“‘Flower’ is a great mentor, a great person,” Lagace said. “He’s easy to talk to. I never felt out of place. That’s huge when you’re a new guy. He’s probably the best to learn from – he’s got a couple rings.
“I remember when we got to Washington and you hear the whole crowd just on you and on the team, you’re like, ‘OK, it’s going down.’ It’s pretty impressive. But it was so much fun. So much fun. After it was over, I was like, ‘I was part of this.’ That was unbelievable.”
This season finds Lagace and Dansk again sharing the net for the Wolves and again tight friends. For Halloween, they bought and wore matching panda costumes – if pandas preferred leather jackets and ostentatious gold chains.
“I’ve never had a partner where you don’t feel a bond, but Oscar is probably my best buddy on the team,” Lagace said. “It pushes me to be better and I’m sure it pushes him. We just hang out together all the time. It’s great to have him around.
“Everything has fallen in place so nicely that, I mean, I love my time here. I wouldn’t change it one bit.”