Mis­fits no more, Knights 2 wins from Cup fi­nal

The Times Herald (Norristown, PA) - - SPORTS -

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 night 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 the ebb and flow of the 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 spec­tac­u­lar back-to-back saves wthat 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 bit,” he said.

No one is laugh­ing now as the Knights try and make his­tory as an ex­pan­sion team turned Stan­ley Cup cham­pion. The team has de­fied the odds since the open­ing game of the sea­son, and book­ies are hav­ing a hard time find­ing any­one to bet against them now.

They were Ve­gas Strong, start­ing the sea­son just af­ter the mur­der­ous Oct. 1 ram­page just down the street from the arena that took 58 lives in the worst mass shoot­ing ever in the U.S. They be­came Ve­gas Born, which has res­onated in a city where so many peo­ple are from else­where.

Call them what you want. But soon you may be calling them Stan­ley Cup cham­pi­ons.

“We’re just a bunch of hockey play­ers that wanted to find a home,” Jonathan Marches­sault said a few games ago. “And we did.” Tim Dahlberg is a na­tional sports colum­nist for The As­so­ci­ated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org or on Twit­ter @tim­dahlberg

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