The Vegas Golden Knights won a spot in the Stanley Cup Final.
The expansion Vegas Golden Knights.
This is as NHL as it gets.
A year ago, this team didn’t even have a team, and now this team will have a chance to win sport’s toughest trophy.
This is why the NHL rocks. Anything can happen. Anything just did.
By beating the Jets 2-1 in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals on Sunday, Vegas continued to beat the odds. The Knights were a 500-1 shot last October. The Knights just became the first team to earn a spot in the championship round.
Top that, NBA. Top that, any major U.S. sports league. Talk about a miracle on ice. This championship possibility would be all the rage if the NHL mattered in the U.S. If only Tim Tebow skated. But no matter. This is historic. An expansion team outside of an all-expansion setup making the championship round just doesn’t happen, except in an NHL known for regularly scheduled upsets.
The NHL is the anti-NBA, and thank goodness for that. The NBA is as predictable as it gets. The NBA drags you through seven months that don’t mean anything because it was always going to be Warriors-Rockets and Cavaliers-Celtics, and here we are and there they are. Is that what you want?
I’ll take drama. I’ll take the unexpected. I’ll take the inexplicable and the insane. The cherished randomness of the NHL demands that you watch. Sports charm us with moments we’ve never witnessed. This is that. This one of the big reasons we watch.
Some people, however, believe the Knights are living out one of the more embarrassing stories in sports history because the Knights have made it look easy this season and because their success indicts the NHL’s diluted product borne of a hard salary cap and soft-headed GMs.
If it was that easy to win 51 games, then the Blackhawks would’ve done it. If the league was that diluted, then the Hawks should swap leagues with the Regina Pats. The more you hear people rip the league for such a spectacle, the more you diminish whatever Hawks dynasty talk you spewed.
This isn’t embarrassment. It’s history. Embarrassment is demanding a new owner fork over $500 million and then sticking the new franchise with a last-place team for five years. The NHL didn’t hose the new guy. The reward for the league and the new owner is one of the biggest and best stories in sports history.
The NHL expansion draft rules were more generous than previously seen, but still, other teams were allowed to protect at least eight skaters (including all players with no-movement clauses), all players with less than three years’ pro experience, and their No. 1 goalie. The Knights managed to acquire speed and talent thanks to general manager George McPhee’s deft handling of the expansion draft. And these pieces of ore and other mixed metals were alchemized into Golden Knights by coach Gerard Gallant, who had been fired by the Panthers and so had a lot in common with his players.
The Knights finished fifth in goals per game and eighth in goals-against per game. Their goal differential of plus-44 was sixth-best in the NHL. That’s playing a team game all over the ice, a point underscored when you realize the Knights went through five goalies this season because of injuries, including one netminder they had to recall from juniors.
In winning the Pacific Division with a 51-24-7 record, the Knights finished 29-10-2 at home, the best record in the Western Conference and second-best in the league. It would appear NHL players didn’t know how to act during a night in Las Vegas. What happens in Vegas stays in the loss column. Stick tap for the Knights’ discipline and smarts on and off the ice.
And for everyone who believes they are riding nothing but home-casino advantage, there’s this: In sweeping the Kings in the first round, eliminating the Sharks in six games in the second and wiping out the Jets in five in the conference finals, the Knights clinched all three series on the road. What happens in Vegas also happens everywhere else.
And now the Knights might get their names etched on the venerable Stanley Cup. It sounds crazy, but it’s as real as four more wins.