Las Ve­gas finds its golden ticket

Las Ve­gas, bound for the West­ern fi­nal, is the feel-good story of the NHL.

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - FRONT PAGE - Kevin Allen

If you placed a $100 bet on the ex­pan­sion Ve­gas Golden Knights when they were listed at 500-1 odds to win the Stanley Cup, you’d have no con­fu­sion about whom to root for in the NHL play­offs.

The Golden Knights moved a step closer to this un­likely oc­cur­rence when they knocked off the San Jose Sharks 3-0 in Game 6 on May 6 to win their sec­ond-round se­ries and earn a trip to the West­ern Con­fer­ence fi­nal. They even caught a break Sun­day when Nate Sch­midt was awarded a goal that orig­i­nally was missed by on-ice of­fi­cials but was caught on re­play.

Ve­gas will face the win­ner of the Win­nipeg Jets-Nashville Preda­tors se­ries, which the Jets led 3-2 head­ing into Game 6 on May 7 in Win­nipeg.

Even if you have no money rid­ing on the Golden Knights, here are five rea­sons they are the story of the NHL this sea­son.

Play­ing for the city: The team played its first reg­u­lar-sea­son home game while the city was griev­ing the loss of 58 vic­tims of a mass shooting at a nearby out­door con­cert venue. Play­ers made ef­forts to help any way they could, in­clud­ing an open­ing-night cer­e­mony that hon­ored the vic­tims and first re­spon­ders, and a spe­cial bond was formed with the com­mu­nity.

Ev­ery­body loves an un­der­dog: Ex­pan­sion teams tra­di­tion­ally don’t make the play­offs, let alone the con­fer­ence fi­nal. The Golden Knights cap­tured the Pacific Di­vi­sion ti­tle with 51 vic­to­ries and 109 points. Be­fore Ve­gas paid a $500 million fee to join the NHL, the league’s last ex­pan­sion teams — the Colum­bus Blue Jack­ets and Min­nesota Wild — had 71 and 68 points, re­spec­tively, in 2000-01. Root­ing for the Golden Knights must be what is was like root­ing for the Mir­a­cle Mets in 1969 or for Loy­ola-Chicago dur­ing this year’s NCAA tour­na­ment.

Golden mis­fits: The Golden Knights have played with a chip on their shoul­der since their first game. They rally around the idea that each player was con­sid­ered ex­pend­able by his for­mer team, ex­posed in the ex­pan­sion draft or moved in a trade. Ve­gas gen­eral man­ager Ge­orge McPhee and coach Ger­ard Gal­lant had been fired from their previous teams. The Golden Knights play ev­ery game as if they have some­thing to prove.

Marc-An­dre Fleury’s pop­u­lar­ity: The ac­ro­batic goalie, one of the Pittsburgh Pen­guins’ most pop­u­lar play­ers, now holds that sta­tus leaguewide. His jersey sales rank among the NHL’s top sell­ers. Fleury, who made 28 saves May 6 for his fourth shutout of the play­offs, is en­joy­ing an ex­cep­tional sea­son and might have been a fi­nal­ist for the Vez­ina Tro­phy had he not missed nearly two months with an in­jury. He’s a mar­keter’s dream as a lik­able star who con­nects with the pub­lic.

Ve­gas-style en­ter­tain­ment: At­tend­ing a Ve­gas game is like noth­ing you’ve seen be­fore. It’s the­ater as much as it is sports. A cas­tle sits above one sec­tion. Sk­its and cheers are unique. En­thu­si­asm is au­then­tic. On the ice, the Golden Knights are a speedy, skat­ing team with a re­lent­less pur­suit of puck. In their first sea­son, they are hard to play against and mes­mer­iz­ing to watch. Even the team Twit­ter ac­count is clever and glib.

STAN SZETO/USA TO­DAY

The Golden Knights’ Marc-An­dre Fleury, re­ceiv­ing con­grat­u­la­tions from the Sharks’ Aaron Dell, posted his fourth shutout of this year’s play­offs May 6.

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