Such are the extraordinary powers of Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury that he didn’t even have to be on the ice to earn an assist.
LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee was named a finalist for the NHL’s GM of the year and we don’t need Las Vegas bookmakers to tell us he’s a prohibitive favorite to win the award.
The man has built the best expansion team in professional sports history. The Golden Knights are two wins short of qualifying for the Stanley Cup Final heading into Friday’s Game 4 at T-Mobile Arena (8 p.m, ET, NBC Sports Network). They lead the Winnipeg Jets 2-1 in their Western Conference final series.
The always-gracious McPhee will want to thank those who helped him get here, so we’ve tried to be helpful by filling out “Thank You” cards for him:
Dear Marc-Andre Fleury: Many thanks for your decision to waive your no-trade clause with the Pittsburgh Penguins to allow us to select you in the expansion draft. We wouldn’t be where we are without your goaltending and your presence in the dressing room. Your goaltending has been out of this world and your willingness to promote our team and the game in Las Vegas has helped us grow strong roots in the community. People said you were a classy gentleman and the perfect teammate, but you can’t fully appreciate those traits until you see them up close and personal as we have.
Dear Vegas owner Bill Foley: Thanks for everything, especially the “Golden Knights” nickname and for saying we could make the playoffs in three years and win the Stanley Cup in six. We’re not afraid of high expectations in Vegas.
Dear NHL commissioner Gary Bettman: Thanks for signing off on a more generous player dispersal system for the expansion draft. This should be a model for future expansion in all sports. When you see how this has helped establish our team in Las Vegas, you wonder why we were so hard on past expansion teams. When McDonald’s Corporation awards a new franchise, the company doesn’t insist that it launch with inferior items on the menu. Why did sports leagues do that for so many years?
Dear Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon: Should probably send you a box of chocolates along with this ‘”thank you” for the sweet deal you gave us on Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith. Landing Marchessault to take Smith’s contract off your hands gave us two-thirds of our top line. Forever grateful.
Dear NFL: Thanks for moving slowly on coming to Las Vegas because we’ve been the first plant our flag and win over this incredibly passionate fan base. It’s laughable now that some people believed pro sports wouldn’t work here. Our fan base is electrifying. If you want to know how to ignite them, we can help.
Dear Florida Panthers: Thanks to whoever made the final decision to fire Gerard “Turk” Gallant as coach. (Dale Tallon didn’t have final say at the time). All that matters is Turk – no one calls him Gerard – was available to be our coach. He’s perfect to lead our band of Golden Misfits. He relates to players and he understands the game at a DNA level.
Dear Expendables: Thanks to all of my players who came in with the attitude that their former teams were wrong to make them available to us. William Karlsson went from six goals for the Columbus Blue Jackets to 43 for us. Erik Haula went from 15 goals for the Minnesota Wild to 29. Nate Schmidt went from third-pairing defenseman in Washington to a top defenseman for us.
Dear former Minnesota Wild GM Chuck Fletcher: Sorry you had so many skilled players on your roster that you couldn’t protect them all. You were in a difficult position that forced you to give us two quality players (Haula and Alex Tuch) to protect players such as Mathew Dumba and Marco Scandella, etc. P.S. We think Tuch is going to be a force for us.
It’s the one where he’ll be wearing a gold, black and steel gray uniform, perhaps a helmet perched on his head as he settles in front of his vast TV.
This is where he’ll be watching his beloved Vegas Golden Knights hockey team play Game 3 of their Stanley Cup Western Conference finals at T-Mobile Arena against the Winnipeg Jets, the best-of-seven series tied at 1-1, with Harper wondering how much more his heart can take it.
“I get more nervous watching them than anything I’ve ever done in my life,’’ Harper tells USA TODAY Sports, “even playing ball. I don’t get nervous watching my team or when I play at all. I really don’t.
“But when I’m watching them, I get so nervous. I’ll sit on the couch with my wife, going nuts.
The Golden Knights, vying to become the first expansion team in a major sport to win a championship in its inaugural season, and already the first hockey team to reach the playoffs in its first year in nearly 40 years, are just three victories shy of going where nobody in their right mind believed they would reach.
Yes, the Stanley Cup Finals.
Forget the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team; maybe the Golden Knights are the unlikeliest miracle on ice.
No one gave them a prayer this season – an NHL-worst 500-to-1 longshot to win the Stanley Cup – except for this certain 25-year-old who happens to be one of the greatest baseball players in the world, and will soon become rich enough to buy his own casino.
“I’m really not surprised,’’ Harper says. “They’re a great team. There’s a lot of guys on that team that have chips on their shoulders because they got let go on other teams they were playing on.
“Look at us. We’ve got one of the best goalies of all-time in our net in (Marc-Andre) Fleury. He was the leader of that team that won three Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh. If we didn’t have a goalie on our team like that, it would definitely be tough. (Wild Bill) Karlsson is having one of the best years of his career. He has six goals in Columbus last year and now has 43 for us.
“We get (Jonathan) Marchessault from the Panthers, and look at the way he’s been playing. Reilly Smith. That whole front line has been unbelievable. Deryk Engelland and Schmidty (Nate Schmidt) coming from the Caps. James Neal, who was with Pittsburgh and Nashville.
“They’re all just such a great group of guys. Just a bunch of really cool dudes who are fast and quick and put the puck into the net. I could go on and on.’’
The Golden Knights have taken Las Vegas by storm, and, oh, can you tell who has caught hockey fever?
Harper and his wife, Kayla, don’t even have kids yet, but Harper already has chosen the sport he wants them to play.
“I’ve fallen in love with hockey,’’ Harper says. “When we have kids, I want them to play hockey. How awesome would that be? I can’t imagine being on the ice and playing such a cool sport.’’
Harper has become Barry Melrose without the colorful high-fashion outfits, soaking up as much hockey knowledge as he can these days. Do you know any other professional athlete who attended virtually every Golden Knights home game during the winter, wearing their jerseys at every opportunity, and occasionally wearing a helmet watching them on his living room couch?
Do you know any other ballplayer who drops in on their practices, sends dozens of autographed bats with the Golden Knights logo to their locker room, drops the puck against the Washington Caps wearing an Alex Tuch jersey, and is already tentatively planning to see them if they’re playing in the Stanley Cup Finals on a May 24 off day?
“It’s the first team I really had a passion rooting for,’’ says Harper, born and raised in Las Vegas, and, yes, blessed with the ability to ice skate. “Growing up, I didn’t really root for many teams. I always liked the Lakers. Liked Dallas in football.
“But those are all the winning teams. Even baseball, I’d get home and watch the Braves on Turner, or the Cubs on WGN, right after “Full House’’ and “Family Matters.’’
“But now, I can’t get enough of them. I watch them religiously. I love hockey.’’
Who’d ever have imagined that Las Vegas would become a hockey town, with every game sold out? Really, it’s the gateway to the gambling capital of the USA turning into a sports mecca.
June, 2016: It seemed like a perfect plan.
- Collect $500 million from a rich Las Vegas businessman in exchange for the first new NHL expansion franchise in 17 years.
- Divide that money between the NHL’s 30 existing clubs, for a cool cash injection of $16.667 million per team.
- Surrender one player to the new franchise in an expansion draft. For that kind of money, general manager George McPhee and his team could even have access to mid-level players. What could possibly be the harm?
We all had a good chuckle when Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley said in 2015 that he wanted to see his team make the playoffs by Year 3 and win a Stanley Cup by Year 8.
He later revised that projection to a Cup in six years. Turns out, that still may have been conservative.
You know the story by now: the Golden Knights won their division, made the playoffs and swept the Los Angeles Kings in their first-round series. On Sunday, they reached the Western Conference Final after recording their fourth shutout win of the playoffs and eliminating the San Jose Sharks.
The favored hashtag now running beside #VegasStrong is #CupIn1.
The Golden Knights’ success is so unprecedented, it’s still difficult to understand how the team can actually be this good. It’s supposed to take years to build a Stanley Cup contender — nurturing top prospects after they’re acquired in the draft, retaining good players with lucrative long-term contracts and supplementing rosters with free agents. Successful teams are supposed to build winning cultures over many years, with veteran leadership groups that keep the dressing room united. History matters.
Nobody argued that McPhee got off to a good start when he anchored the Golden Knights’ roster with three-time Stanley Cup-winning goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury from the Pittsburgh Penguins. But Vegas charted its course for the playoffs without him, going 16-8-1 during the 25-game stretch between October and December where Fleury was sidelined with a concussion.
Dan Bouchard can appreciate, better than most, the Miracle in the Desert.
He was a goalie for the expansion Atlanta Flames back in the 1970s, so he knows how difficult it is to build a competitive team from scratch.
“It’s astonishing what they’ve done in Vegas,” said Bouchard, who still lives in the Atlanta area, when reached by phone this week. “I think it’s the greatest thing to happen to hockey since the Miracle on Ice,” he added, referring to the seminal U.S. upset of the mighty Soviet Union at the 1980 Olympics. “It’s that good.”
Indeed, Vegas has set a new norm for expansion teams in all sports. No longer will it be acceptable to enter a league with a squad full of dregs and take your lumps for a few years, all while fans willingly pay big-league prices to watch an inferior product.
The Golden Knights have come up with a stunning new template for how this expansion thing can be done.
They romped to the Pacific Division title with 51 wins. In the opening round of the playoffs, they finished off the Los Angeles Kings in four straight games , casting aside a franchise that has a pair of Stanley Cup titles this decade while becoming the first expansion team in NHL history to sweep a postseason series in its debut year.
Imagine how storied franchises in Montreal and Detroit and Edmonton must be feeling right about now.
They didn’t even make the playoffs.
From Bouchard’s perspective, it’s all good. Vegas’ success right out of the starting gate will make everyone raise their game in the years to come.
“This will wake up the teams that are sitting on $90 million budgets and not doing anything,” he said. “People will say, ‘If Vegas can do it, we can do it.’ That’s a paradigm shift in the game.”
When one considers how NHL expansion teams have fared over the years, the Vegas story becomes even more compelling.
The Golden Knights are the first new team in the NHL’s modern era to have a winning record in their inaugural season, a period that began in 1967 and encompasses 26 new franchises (including one, the ill-fated California Seals, who are no longer around).
Only six other first-year teams have made the playoffs — and that includes four that were assured of postseason berths in the landmark 1967 expansion. You see, when the NHL finally broke out of its Original Six format, doubling in size to a dozen teams, it placed all the new franchises in the same division, with the top four getting postseason berths even with sub-.500 records.
Until the Golden Knights came along, the Florida Panthers were the gold standard for NHL expansion. They finished one game below .500 in their first season (1993-94) and missed the playoffs by a single point. In Year 3, they had their first winning record and made it all the way to the Stanley Cup final, though they were swept by the Colorado Avalanche.
That remains the closest the Panthers have come to winning a title.
In Sin City, the wait for a championship figures to be much shorter. Heck, the Golden Knights might do it this year.
They’re 12 wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup in a city that has always had a soft spot for long shots.
“We’re still a few wins away from this being a great story,” said goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, a key contributor to the Golden Knights success.
Even now, it seems like a bit of dream to coach Gerard Gallant, who thankfully will be remembered for something other than getting left at the curb to hail his own cab after being fired by the Panthers.
“When this all started in October, we just wanted to compete,” Gallant said. “Now we’re going to the second round of the playoffs. It’s unreal.”
For sure, the Golden Knights wound up with a much more talented roster than most expansion teams — partly through astute planning, partly through getting access to better players as a reward for doling out a staggering $500 million expansion fee, which was a more than six-fold increase over the $80 million required of Minnesota and Columbus to enter the league in 2000.
The expansion draft netted a top-line goalie in Fleury, who helped Pittsburgh win three Stanley Cups; center Jonathan Marchessault, a 30-goal scorer in Florida who was surprisingly left exposed by the Panthers; and winger James Neal, who had scored more than 20 goals in all nine of his NHL seasons. It also provided a solid group of defensemen: Colin Miller, Nate Schmidt, Deryk Engelland and Brayden McNabb.
In addition, the Golden Knights wisely nabbed young Swedish center William Karlsson, who hadn’t done much in Columbus but became Vegas’ leading scorer with 43 goals and 35 assists.
“They’ve got some top centers. They’ve got some real good defense. They’ve got good goaltending,” Bouchard observed. “They went right down the middle. That’s how the built it. Then they complemented it with the fastest guys they could get their hands on. They went for speed.”
In only a matter of four games, less than a week, the Vegas Golden Knights have gone from one of the best stories in hockey history to one of the best bets to hoist the Stanley Cup.
The Golden Knights not only opened as the favorites in their second-round matchup against the San Jose Sharks, but they are now officially championship contenders. According to bookmakers, the Knights currently have the second-best odds of winning the Stanley Cup (4/1), just behind the Nashville Predators (7/2).
The expansion team has come a long way since opening the season as a 200-to-1 longshot to win hockey’s biggest prize.
After sweeping the Ducks in Round 1, the Knights continue calibrate everyone’s expectations. They’re now even bigger favorites in the second round than they were in the first round of the playoffs. Vegas opens as -140 favorites to win the series against San Jose, better than their odds of -135 against Anaheim in the opening round.
Sin City vs. Silicon Valley
It’s a curious betting line for the series considering that San Jose not only had a better regular season than the team Vegas just eliminated, but the Sharks also looked equally dominant in a first-round sweep where they limited the Ducks to just four goals.
The Golden Knights do have home-ice advantage in the series, however, and they collected seven of a possible eight points in the regular season, posting 3-0-1 mark against the Sharks.
Surprises have become the norm for the Golden Knights, and the betting public wants a piece. The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook has seen an unprecedented amount of betting on hockey, with the action on the Golden Knights approaching NFL-like levels at times.
ESPN Senior Writer
LAS VEGAS — Late in the third period of the Vegas Golden Knights‘ first Stanley Cup playoff game, a message flashed on the video board at T-Mobile Arena asking fans to make noise depending on who they were.
Make noise if you’re male … make noise if you’re female. Make noise if you’re married … make noise if you’re single.
The roars from the crowd were fairly even for both — until it got to the last one.
Make noise if you’re a tourist … make noise if you’re a local.
There is perhaps no greater distinction for the residents of this city than “tourist or local.” After all, no city is as identified by its hotels and tourists as Las Vegas. Think of all the great Las Vegas-centric movies you have ever seen. From “The Hangover” to “Ocean’s Eleven,” there is a good chance the stars of the film were out-of-towners making bad decisions in Sin City. The sense from those who never venture off The Strip is that locals are simply comprised of card dealers and cocktail waitresses who buy their groceries at Caesars Palace and the Bellagio.
But Las Vegas is a real community with real locals and real families who live real lives far from the bright lights of South Las Vegas Blvd. — and that was on display during the Golden Knights’ first postseason win against the Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday.
Only two teams won more games at home than Vegas during the regular season, but despite playing in front of sold-out home crowds all season, the stands were often filled with as many (or more) fans from the visiting teams. Weekend games against the likes of Detroit, Boston, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Calgary led to The Strip and surrounding casinos being flooded with jerseys of the opposing team.
That was not the case Wednesday when The Park Las Vegas — an outdoor area lined with trees, waterfalls and restaurants that sits between the New York-New York and Park MGM hotels — was crowded with Golden Knights fans walking the pathway that leads directly to T-Mobile Arena. Outside the arena, Toshiba Plaza, a two-acre area in front of T-Mobile Arena, was filled with more Golden Knights fans getting free Golden Knights tattoos, wearing black and gold face paint, taking pictures with Vegas showgirls and dancing to a concert from Grammy-nominated rapper Logic.
This was a local party surprisingly devoid of Los Angeles fans, which was by design. The Golden Knights enrolled all their full-season-ticket holders in a program that prohibits them from reselling their playoff tickets on the secondary market. In exchange for vowing not to resell, the fans will pay less for tickets than fans who opt out. The team is calling the program the “Knights Vow.”
“We’re a destination city. During the regular season, it was a big part of our event experience. But the Stanley Cup playoffs, that’s a different time,” Vegas team president Kerry Bubolz told ESPN. “We want to do what we can to support the hockey side of our organization.”
The result Wednesday was a crowd of 18,479, the largest in team history, and perhaps the largest collection of local fans the team has had all season at a home game. While the team admits it will make less money with this strategy, it is a small price to pay for developing what could become one of the best home-ice advantages in the NHL during the postseason.
“I think that’s the loudest I’ve heard this building,” said Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. “It was rocking. There was great intensity right from the start. The atmosphere in the building was awesome.”
The on-ice pregame show included a battle scene seemingly out “Game of Thrones” as a Golden Knight slayed a King at center ice before Vegas players stormed through an oversized Golden Knights helmet lowered from the rafters as the crowd stood and waved towels. There have been some wild pregame ceremonies in hockey, but this was arguably the craziest.
No need to roll the dice with these top ten tips for Sin City.
There’s more to Vegas than the Strip —family-friendly activities, unique museums, great art and breathtaking nature. So make memories that don’t have to stay there.
STRIP LIKE A LOCAL
The Strip houses pop culture from high to low. The Crystals mall features two James Turrell installations: one above the monorail platform, the other hidden in the Louis Vuitton store. Meanwhile, the “Lake of Dreams” at the Wynn Hotel uses 5,000 lights for fairy tale shows set against the waterfall. The Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art features an impressive collection.
CRASH A WEDDING
What would Vegas be without Elvis and a wedding? Even if it’s not your own, there’s always someone tying the knot at the Graceland Wedding Chapel, or any of the other Elvis-themed wedding venues in town. Take a seat and watch the happy couples coming and going. Did we mention the pink Cadillac?
The Neon Museum showcases the history of Sin City through retired signs. As Tom Wolfe noted, Vegas is “the only town in the world whose skyline is made up neither of buildings, like New York, nor of trees, like Wilbraham, Massachusetts, but signs.” Guided tours are available to walk visitors through the faded glow of history.
EXPLORE A DESERT DREAMSCAPE
The Springs Preserve, an 180-acre kid-friendly palate cleanser, features a botanical garden, museum, galleries, and nature trails. Built around the city’s original water source, the Las Vegas Springs, the preserve is owned and operated by the Las Vegas Valley Water District, hence the emphasis on conservation and sustainable desert living.
SEE QUIRKY SITES
The Mob Museum documents the worlds of Al Capone, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, Meyer Lansky, and Whitey Bulger. Upcoming new additions include an exhibition on Prohibition complete with working distillery, a crime lab explaining forensics, and a café. There’s also the National Atomic Testing Museum with a Ground Zero Theater that simulates an atmospheric blast.
HIKE CRIMSON CANYONS
Check out Red Rock Canyon for hiking—26 numbered trails of varying difficulties, to be exact. There’s also plenty of wildlife to observe, mountain biking, scenic drives, stargazing, and camping. Fossils of dinosaurs and early mammals immortalized in the Aztec sandstone are a reminder of whom got there first.
GO ALL NIGHT
Secret Pizza in the Cosmopolitan Hotel has good NYC slices and people-watching, if you’re willing to wait in line. Or explore Fremont Street downtown—there are a slew of karaoke bars, and a three-story waterslide, and shark tank at the Golden Nugget.
Valley of Fire State Park is about an hour from the city, with great hikes and amazing night skies. Definitely catch the sunset. In the 1920s, an AAA official did just that, noting the entire valley looked like it was on fire. If you have the time, visit the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead.
Blink-182 are bringing “The Rock Show” to Las Vegas with their 16-date “Kings of the Weekend” residency at the Palms Casino Resort’s Pearl Concert Theater, which takes place on select weekends from May 26 through November 17.
“When the Palms asked us to do a residency here in Vegas, we said ‘Absolutely!’” singer and bassist Mark Hoppus said in a statement. “Now, we just have to cast our showgirls, create our set list — a true throwback of Vegas classics with Sinatra, Liberace. Maybe we can even marry someone on stage … The possibilities in Vegas are endless.”
With their extended stay in Sin City, the snotty pop-punk trio — composed of Hoppus, drummer Travis Barker and singer/guitarist Matt Skiba — follow in the footsteps of countless classic rock bands, from The Who to Guns N’ Roses, as well as pop stars like Britney Spears and country icons like Shania Twain. Celine Dion effectively kicked off the residency trend with her A New Day… engagement, which ran from 2003 to 2007 at The Colosseum at Caesar’s Palace and grossed over $385 million, becoming the most successful residency of all time.
Blink-182 topped the Billboard 200 albums chart with their latest album, California (their first without founding guitarist and vocalist Tom DeLonge), and played a slew of U.S. amphitheater and festival dates throughout 2016 and 2017 on the accompanying tour. They’ve scored several multiplatinum albums over the course of their nearly 25-year career, and the “Kings of the Weekend” residency finds them transitioning into, essentially, a classic rock act.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, either: It reduces the rigors of the road for the band while allowing them to charge more money for tickets and potentially customize each show, treating hardcore fans to a deep dive through their discography. At the very least, it’ll give nostalgic tourists the chance to wail “All the Small Things” at the top of their lungs one more time.
Tickets for Blink-182’s “Kings of the Weekend” residency go on sale to the general public on Friday and can be purchased on the band’s website.
With 15 games left in the regular season, including their KeyBankCenter debut at 1 p.m. today against the Sabres, the Vegas Golden Knights have become one of the favorites to reach the Stanley Cup Final. In their first year of existence.
Even the hockey gods think that’s a bit crazy.
If you’ve been wallowing in the Sabres season and have missed the Vegas story, here’s the recap:
The first-year team got off to a hot start, going 8-3-0 in October. Impressive, but the hockey world wondered if the Golden Knights could keep up all that winning.
Turns out they could.
They went 11-1-1 in December, had an eight-game winning streak carry over to the new year, and arrive in Buffalo with four players hitting the 60-point mark for the season.
For contrast, the Sabres have only two players in the 50-point club – Jack Eichel with 53 and Ryan O’Reilly with 50.
Leading the Golden Knights is center Jonathan Marchessault with 65 points, while William Karlsson, Randy Smith, and David Perron all have 60. All were chosen in the expansion draft. All had some NHL experience. All were looking for a place to call home.
“You look at the players they have and the depth that they have,” O’Reilly said. “They’re bringing on all these guys with a lot of them coming from successful teams. They’re all veteran players that have been around and when you bring a group like that together, you see how they’ve done, how consistent they are and how they found a way to work. I didn’t expect them to be at the top but you expect them to be at least competing every night and what they’ve done is very impressive.”
The majority of the Vegas roster is comprised of players from the expansion draft, players left unprotected by their former teams. If you think that means there’s a group of players who came together with a chip on their shoulder, Marchessault said you’d be right.
“Yeah, sure. Everybody was part of an organization that they didn’t protect you and didn’t necessarily want you,” Marchessault said Friday after Vegas practiced in KeyBank Center. “It’s definitely hard to take, but it’s a hard business also. You’re never safe. Everybody wants to be part of history, wants to be part of something great. We came in with the same mentality. We wanted to win games.”
And win games they have.
Vegas has run away with the Pacific Division and is in second place in the Western Conference at 43-19-5. Should the Golden Knights win today, they will set the record for most road wins by an expansion club with 20, breaking the mark of 19 set by Anaheim in the 1993-94 season.
“I was (surprised) a little bit early on, like if they could maintain that throughout the year,” Sabres coach Phil Housley said. “They’ve done a terrific job. You put together their speed and transition and their work level, I think that’s one of the biggest things in their identity is that they work. If you put work and speed together, that’s a deadly combination.”
Hard work has been the core identity of the Golden Knights. Because along with that chip on their shoulders, the players in Vegas realize what they achieve collectively is larger than what they are individually.