By Mary Cunningham
The Las Vegas Golden Knights bounced the Winnipeg Jets in the Western Conference Final, winning the fifth game 2-1 to reach the Stanley Cup Final.
A team that did not exist at this time last year is four wins away from hockey’s greatest prize.
You have to go back to the 1968 St. Louis Blues to find a team that’s done this—and the Knights have done it in an era with much more NHL competition.
Meanwhile, Vegas’s arena looks like the most rocking place in sports.
The Knights folks argued that Vegas was a lot more than tourists on the Strip—that there was a growing city hungry for hockey. But how hungry were they for bad hockey? We all knew the Golden Knights would stink in their opening year. Stinkage was just assumed. It’s the rule for expansion teams. You suffer for a bunch of years, come up with a plan, and pray it eventually works out, or they shut you down and move you someplace else.
When the NHL held its expansion draft last June—basically, a potluck dinner which allowed the Knights to throw together a roster out of players other teams didn’t protect, the experts didn’t see a Stanley Cup finalist in the making.
The Hockey News picked the Knights to finish dead naked last in their division. So did ESPN. USA Today penciled them in as the worst team in the NHL, full stop.
The Knights didn’t even get the benefit of the doubt in the local trade. Casino books pegged them as anywhere from a 200-to-1 to a 500-to-1 long shot to win the Cup.
They still have work left to collect the jackpot. The Golden Knights will get the winner of the Tampa Bay Lightning-Washington Capitals Eastern Conference tangle, which the Lightning currently lead 3-2. Vegas gets to rest and see who they’ll face in the Stanley Cup Final.
There are good hockey angles here, to be sure. It starts with goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who gave the club veteran stability and was brilliant again Sunday in the 2-1 clincher over Winnipeg, stopping 31 of 32 shots. The Golden Knights’ young talent has overachieved as well. William “Wild Bill” Karlsson had 18 goals in his first three NHL seasons between the Anaheim Ducks and the Columbus Blue Jackets. He had 43 in the regular season for Vegas—and has six more in the playoffs thus far.
Then there’s the home crowd advantage. The Knights begin each contest in T-Mobile Arena with some glitter and sizzle—the pregame show resembles a renaissance fair co-managed by Cher and Elton John—but it’s the hockey action that’s wound up generating the most noise. The Knights began the season hot on the ice, and the novelty’s not worn off.
If you’re sitting at home chagrined that the NBA playoffs may turn into yet another duel between the Warriors and LeBron, the NHL has a delicious American story for you. The Golden Knights are going to the Stanley Cup Final, and Las Vegas is officially a hockey town.
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