Why you should care
In an NHL first, a rookie franchise is playing for the sporting world’s most famous hardware.
The hottest team in hockey was written off before this season even started. Now, after a 4-1 series dismantling of Winnipeg — the club that many hockey minds believed was the most talented of the four conference finalists — the fledgling Vegas Golden Knights have reached the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season. It’s a stunning sports development akin to Leicester City’s Premier League glory of 2016 and Loyola-Chicago’s recent push to the NCAA Final Four.
Now that our underdog cliché quota has been filled, let’s review what we’re really watching from the Golden Knights. The answer? A balanced collective rewriting of what’s to be expected from expansion franchises in sports. The Golden Knights are no fluke. In fact, one of the best teams in hockey has arrived as a symbol of the NHL’s expanding talent pool and hockey’s long-awaited changing landscape.
This is the third consecutive year that a team will make its debut in the Stanley Cup Final.
Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins knocked off first-timers San Jose and Nashville in 2016 and 2017, respectively. And while both runners-up failed to win the ultimate prize, those debuts served as meaningful milestones for former expansion franchises that have fought to build loyal followings in nontraditional hockey regions. In total, Cup debutantes have gone 11-17 in the finals. The Ottawa Senators, an expansion team in 1992, lost in its debut appearance in 2007, while the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Cup in 2004 — their first finals trip.
In the Western Conference, six of the eight playoff qualifiers were former expansion teams. Only one, Winnipeg, hails from a traditional market — but the Jets just relocated to Canada in 2011, following 12 years of irrelevance while known as the Atlanta Thrashers. “The talent pool in hockey is so much deeper these days,” says Vincent LoVerde, a defenseman in Toronto’s organization. “Teenagers are being drafted ready to play right away, so there’s a lot more roster depth and depth throughout organizations.”
The depth that LoVerde speaks of paid dividends for Las Vegas at the 2017 NHL expansion draft, used to build the roster that has become the Western Conference Champion Golden Knights. Nineteen of the 22 Vegas skaters who have appeared in a game in the Stanley Cup playoffs were selected or acquired in a trade at the 2017 NHL expansion draft.
But Vegas general manager George McPhee also benefited from a rule change that, in hindsight, has many hockey traditionalists crying foul. Expansion drafts allow the new team to pick “unprotected” players off other NHL team rosters. In 2017, in the interest of competitiveness, NHL teams were forced to leave more players unprotected — as opposed to the 2000 draft that filled the rosters of Minnesota and Columbus. Thus, Las Vegas had a head start that former expansion teams were never allowed. “Vegas is obviously not a typical expansion team,” says LoVerde. “They have a deep roster stacked with fast, tough guys who needed a chance to prove their worth.”
It’s crazy in pro sports how things can change so quickly.
Ryan Carpenter, Vegas Golden Knights
The narrative surrounding Las Vegas this season has been that of the underdog with a chip on its shoulder. That’s partially true, as being deemed dispensable is sure to serve an athlete with an added dose of motivation, but the Knights aren’t thinking of themselves as less than. “We don’t see ourselves as an expansion team for a long time now,” Golden Knights winger, and alternate captain, David Perron told reporters after toppling Winnipeg. “At the same time, it’s always nice to keep proving people wrong.… Even at this point I don’t feel like people will believe we’ll close it out.”
Last Sunday, the Knights became the seventh team in NHL history to reach the finals with three series-clinching wins on the road. Five of the previous six teams to do that have won the Stanley Cup. Problem is, after defeating Tampa Bay in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, Washington became the eighth clique of road warriors to do the same. Two clubs have never met in the finals in this fashion.
Vegas beat the Capitals in both regular season meetings — 3-0 and 4-3 in a nail-biter. Goalie Marc-André Fleury, returning to his third straight Cup finals — and fifth overall, after two with Pittsburgh — is the key for Vegas. Fleury made 46 saves on 49 shots in the two wins against Washington and, so far, he’s been lights out in the postseason. He’s posted four shutouts and a 94.7 save percentage in the playoffs and has made at least 30 saves in four consecutive games. According to NBC Sports analyst Eddie Olczyk, Fleury’s goaltending and the stylistic contrast of the two teams will be deciding factors. While Vegas has depth and speed, Washington is known for its size and aggression. “The Capitals are a lot quicker than people realize,” adds Olczyk. “They have the size advantage and have faced adversity a lot in these playoffs.”
Once a 500-1 long shot to win the Stanley Cup, the Golden Knights are now favored to take home the hardware. That might seem surprising, given that Washington features a high-powered offense and the best remaining player in Alexander Ovechkin.
But behind Fleury’s rally-killing netminding, the Knights made quick work of the Western Conference. They have yet to leave a challenge unanswered, so who are the bookmakers to bet against their neighbors on the Strip? “It’s crazy in pro sports how things can change so quickly,” said Vegas forward Ryan Carpenter on Sunday.
No kidding. Four remaining NHL teams have yet to make a Cup appearance. Hey, Minnesota, Columbus, Winnipeg and Arizona: You’re on the clock.