This time a year ago, the Vegas Golden Knights had a nickname and a logo, but they hadn’t selected their roster yet.
No players to market or promote. None, zero, zip, zilch.
Those could also have been words used by many to describe the chances of the Golden Knights nailing this absurd trifecta in its inaugural season: winning a Pacific Division title, stampeding through the Western Conference bracket and competing for the Stanley Cup.
But here they are, four wins from the most improbable championship in NHL history, if not all of North American major professional sports, after a 2-1 victory against the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday. Vegas, which won the best-of-seven series by 4-1, never trailed over the final four games. The Golden Knights will face either the Tampa Bay Lightning or the Washington Capitals in the Stanley Cup Finals.
A merry band of castoffs and rejects — Golden Misfits, they call themselves — populate the roster crafted by general manager George McPhee and molded by coach Gerard Gallant into a bona fide dynamo — expansion franchise, shmexpansion franchise. They swept Los Angeles, blitzed San Jose and rolled Winnipeg, which finished with the NHL’s second-best record.
There is not one overarching reason for Vegas’ success, but several, all entwined: the right players, the right coaches and a grieving city eager to embrace a new sport and a winner.
Not that he would, but Marc-Andre Fleury, one of the league’s more affable and beloved players, can flaunt his pedigree by holding up three fingers: one for each Stanley Cup he has won. The last two came the past two seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and he is bidding for a third in a row after posting, at 33, career bests in save percentage (.927) and goals against average (2.24).
A favorite to win the Conn Smythe Trophy given to the most valuable player of the postseason, Fleury has even surpassed that brilliance in these playoffs, allowing 1.68 goals per game. His dazzling sequence of saves against Winnipeg star Mark Schiefele in the third period of Game 3 might have changed the course of the series.
Fleury bestowed Vegas with instant credibility and stability in the crease, locker-room leadership and a strong presence in the community. And to think — the Penguins, who had already relegated Fleury to the bench and were keen to rid themselves of his contract, dealt a second-round pick in 2020 to make sure Vegas would take him in the expansion draft. The heist of the season.
The Florida Panthers
How does this sound, the Panthers asked Vegas: We’re going to fire our coach so you can hire him in a few months; leave a top center unprotected in the expansion draft; and — wait, there’s more! — trade you another leading scorer to supply instant offense. This conversation did not actually happen, but the moves did. A strong Panthers presence courses through the Golden Knights.
The enduring image of Gallant had been of him climbing into a taxi outside PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina, in November 2016 after being fired by the Panthers. Now it is of him standing behind the Vegas bench, overseeing a team that wins again and again and again. He pumps positivity instead of dwelling on mistakes, listens instead of demands.
“You feel good about yourself when your coach feels good about you,” Gallant said Saturday.
Thirty goals last season couldn’t persuade Florida to retain Jonathan Marchessault, who followed up by tallying 27, to go with 48 assists, for Vegas while becoming a more responsible two-way player. In these playoffs, he has amassed 18 points, tied for most by a player in a franchise’s postseason debut, and two game-winning goals.
Marchessault’s former Panthers teammate Reilly Smith, acquired for a fourth-round pick, flanks him on Vegas’ top line. All he’s done this postseason is rank second on the team in playoff scoring — behind Marchessault.
As usual, the NHL’s premier snipers led the league in goals this season: Alex Ovechkin, Patrik Laine, William Karlsson — wait, who? Across his three previous seasons, with Anaheim and Columbus, Karlsson scored 18 goals. This season he had 20 by New Year’s Eve, when he registered a hat trick against Toronto.
Finishing with 43 goals, one behind Laine and six behind Ovechkin, Karlsson, 25, provided a jolt to the Golden Knights’ offense that was welcomed as much as it was unexpected.
The Chips on Their Shoulders
No matter how many goals they scored (or didn’t score) last season, no matter how many saves they made (or didn’t make), the Golden Knights gathered for training camp before the season as equals — traded and exposed, discarded by their old teams, exiled to an expansion franchise in the middle of the desert. Disrespected and discounted, the Golden Knights coalesced around that snub.
It’s a credit to McPhee, who exploited the generous expansion draft rules to stockpile picks and talent, that he targeted players on short-term deals who would be motivated to impress for that next contract. The group he assembled was told for months it wouldn’t win this season, wouldn’t come close to reaching the playoffs. Now it hardly loses.
The heaving caldron that is T-Mobile Arena thumps during warm-ups, with showgirls distracting the opponent and the music cranked high, and never relents. Home-ice advantage is difficult to quantify, but Vegas has it.
The Golden Knights, the first major pro team in Las Vegas, are 6-1 at T-Mobile Arena in the playoffs after recording a 29-10-2 mark there during the season, one of the best home marks in the league. The team plays in front of fans who appreciate how quickly, and deeply, the Golden Knights have taken to their adopted city after a mass shooting at a concert killed 58 people on Oct. 1, five days before Vegas’ first game.
The tragedy strengthened the Golden Knights’ bond with its fan base, which found healing in hockey, a respite from their grief.