Mis­fits no more, Knights 2 wins from Cup fi­nal

Daily Times (Primos, PA) - - SPORTS - Tim Dahlberg AP Sports Colum­nist

LAS VE­GAS » A year ago at this time the Ve­gas Golden Knights had one mi­nor league player on an oth­er­wise empty ros­ter and no idea what to ex­pect when an en­tire team was fi­nally as­sem­bled. Now, they are two wins away from play­ing for the Stan­ley Cup.

The best story in sports got even bet­ter Wed­nes­day on the Las Ve­gas Strip, where the Golden Knights con­tin­ued their im­prob­a­ble run to­ward the Cup fi­nal with a 4-2 win over the Win­nipeg Jets. Be­fore a rau­cous crowd of 18,477 newly minted hockey fans, the ex­pan­sion team like no other won a sec­ond straight against the Jets to take a 2-1 lead in the Western Con­fer­ence fi­nal.

As much as 500-1 to win the Stan­ley Cup in this gam­bling city’s sports books when the sea­son be­gan, the play­ers that like to re­fer to them­selves as the Golden Mis­fits are now in­cred­i­bly the odds-on fa­vorites to win it all.

In a city built on losers, the first ma­jor pro fran­chise could be the win­ner no one ex­pected — even the play­ers cast off from their for­mer teams.

Mis­fits, they’re not. But many of them had never even met be­fore last sum­mer’s ex­pan­sion draft, and now they’re on the brink of the Stan­ley Cup fi­nals.

“I don’t think any­one saw us here,” said Marc An­dre Fleury, the three-time Stan­ley Cup win­ner who was left un­pro­tected in the ex­pan­sion draft by Pitts­burgh. “I’m re­ally proud to be part of this sea­son.”

On a night when Fleury made one spec­tac­u­lar save af­ter an­other, the Knights were just good enough to take the ad­van­tage in the se­ries. They held onto a one-goal ad­van­tage most of the third pe­riod, de­spite be­ing out­played and out­shot by the Jets.

The grudges they once held against their for­mer teams are gone. But they’ve played the en­tire sea­son with a chip on their shoul­ders af­ter be­ing judged ex­pend­able by their for­mer em­ploy­ers.

“We all came here with the right mind­set,” said James Neal, who had a goal and an as­sist in the win. “No one likes to be left un­pro­tected.”

That the Knights were com­pet­i­tive in their first sea­son wasn’t a to­tal sur­prise. The NHL set up the ex­pan­sion draft so teams couldn’t hold onto all of their top play­ers, and the Knights wasted no time in mak­ing Fleury the back­bone of the new team.

What did sur­prise a lot of peo­ple in hockey was that gen­eral man­ager Ge­orge McPhee nailed just the right com­bi­na­tion of speed up front to go with the stel­lar goal­keep­ing. And so far they’ve held their own speed-wise in the se­ries against the Jets, a team built on speed it­self.

“They’re a quick team, for sure,” Jets coach Paul Mau­rice said. “When we’re fast we look faster, too. It’s game.”

The Knights are not only the hottest ticket on the Strip, but the hottest thing in a city of 2 mil­lion. Las Ve­gans have em­braced their first ma­jor pro fran­chise and op­pos­ing play­ers of­ten talk about the at­mos­phere in­side the T-Mo­bile Arena.

Away from the arena it’s more of the same. Golden Knights mer­chan­dise is ev­ery­where in the city and hundreds of fans show up just to watch prac­tice at the team’s fa­cil­ity in the sub­urbs. Home­grown base­ball hero Bryce Harper is such a big fan he has bats with Golden Knights lo­gos, and singer Car­rie Un­der­wood of­fered (it was de­clined) to sing the na­tional an­them af­ter her Nashville Preda­tors were elim­i­nated.

And if the Jets drove past Cae­sars Palace on their way to the game they might have no­ticed the statue of Cae­sar was hold­ing a Knights hockey stick.

Fleury, who made the ebb and flow of the spec­tac­u­lar back-to-back saves that left him sprawled across the ice while the Knights were cling­ing to a 3-2 lead in the third pe­riod, was asked af­ter what he would have thought be­fore the sea­son if some­one told him the team would be within two wins of the Stan­ley Cup fi­nals.

“Prob­a­bly laugh a lit­tle said. bit,” he

TREVOR HAGAN — THE CANA­DIAN PRESS VIA AP

Las Ve­gas’ To­mas Tatar (90) cel­e­brates with for­mer Flyer Pierre-Edouard Belle­mare (41) af­ter Tatar scored on Mon­day.

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