Vegas Golden Knights Reach Stanley Cup Finals in First Season

By Matt Rybaltowski
May 20, 2018
LAS VEGAS — As the Vegas Golden Knights swarmed Marc-Andre Fleury inside his crease at Bell MTS Place in Winnipeg, one of his most fervent supporters hoisted a sign amid a raucous fete back in Las Vegas.

Standing mere feet from a stage at the team’s official watch party, Paul James, a former air traffic control specialist at McCarran Airport, celebrated with a bevy of cheerleaders, thousands of fans and the team’s eponymous Golden Knight mascot, who waved a shiny rapier in triumph. The sign read: “Pouvoir Des Fleury” or “Flower Power,” underlining the acrobatic goaltender’s magnetic appeal to the team and city.

On Sunday, Fleury led the Knights to a 2-1 victory over the Winnipeg Jets, capping an improbable and amazing journey through the Western Conference playoffs. Over the series’ five games, Fleury constantly repelled a talented Jets lineup that included the imposing forward Mark Scheifele and the sharpshooter Patrik Laine.

With the victory, the Golden Knights joined the 1967-68 St. Louis Blues as the only expansion teams since 1960 in the N.H.L., N.B.A., M.L.B. and N.F.L. to earn a spot in a championship round during their inaugural seasons.

The Knights’ run to the finals is a remarkable achievement by any measure. Before the conference finals even started, the Knights were one of just three teams in N.H.L. history to win multiple playoff series in their inaugural season. The Toronto Arenas accomplished the feat in 1918 and the Blues advanced to the finals in their first year, when the N.H.L. doubled in size from the Original Six. The Blues were the beneficiary of a favorable playoff bracket that ensured an expansion team would receive a spot in the finals.

Other teams have had early success, but not in their inaugural seasons. The Florida Panthers made it to the Stanley Cup finals in 1995-96, their third year of existence, and lost to the Colorado Avalanche. In other professional sports, the Milwaukee Bucks captured the 1971 N.B.A. title three years after entering the league, and the Arizona Diamondbacks won the 2001 World Series in their fourth season. Both teams were led by big stars — the Bucks by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (known as Lew Alcindor at the time) and the Diamondbacks by Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling — who intimidated opponents with their brute strength and power. By contrast, the Knights are led by gritty, diminutive players, such as Jonathan Marchessault, the undrafted forward who appeared in 150 games in the American Hockey League before making his N.H.L. debut.

The Knights’ improbable run stands in stark contrast to the travails of less-fortunate franchises, like the frustration that the Toronto Maple Leafs have endured for the better part of a half century. Over the last several decades, the ESPN broadcaster Barry Melrose noted, no team in the N.H.L. has had more money at its disposal than the Leafs. When the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan completed the sale of its 79.53 percent ownership stake in Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment in 2012, Bell and Rogers Communications Inc. acquired the franchise for $1.32 billion, more than double the $500 million expansion fee that the Knights majority owner Bill Foley paid two years ago.

Yet the Leafs have not appeared in the finals since 1967, maintaining a dubious streak of futility that ranks among the most glaring in North American professional sports. The Knights, on the other hand, have ascended to the league’s grandest stage with a coach dismissed by the Florida Panthers, a general manager that unceremoniously parted ways with the Washington Capitals and a roster consisting largely of players that were left unprotected in the expansion draft by their former teams.

“Here’s a team that has had every possible advantage a team could have and they haven’t been back to the Stanley Cup in 50 years,” Melrose said. “Now a team that no one wanted is one of the best teams in the N.H.L. It is David vs. Goliath; it has so many intertwined stories.”

Before leading the Los Angeles Kings to the Stanley Cup finals in 1993, Melrose played alongside Knights Coach Gerard Gallant for the better part of three seasons in the Red Wings’ organization. There, Gallant brought a toughness to the ice and an amiable persona to the locker room, making him immensely popular with his teammates. More important, Gallant had the intelligence to play quickly when he shared a line with Steve Yzerman or more cerebrally on the fourth line when he was required to stay back and read the play.

In many respects, the Knights have taken on the personality of their coach. Several general managers throughout the league have attributed the Knights’ success in part to their relentless energy among all four lines. Ironically, Ryan Reaves, a fourth-line forward acquired by Vegas at the trade deadline, recorded the series clincher by deflecting a shot from the blue line past Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck at 13:21 of the second period.

Armed with a stockpile of draft picks, the Knights are well-positioned for the next several years, Melrose said, even if their inaugural season doesn’t conclude with a storybook ending.

“Really their best years are ahead of them,” Melrose said. “The story keeps getting better and better.”