Las Vegas Golden Knights Defy History To Make The Stanley Cup Finals

In their first year as an NHL expansion team, the Las Vegas Golden Knights have managed to do something that's only been done once before in any of the 'big four' professional sports leagues in the United States.

For only the second time in nearly sixty years, an expansion team has made the final round of the playoffs in a major American sports league, and it turns out to be a team that plays on ice from a city surrounded by desert terrain:

LAS VEGAS — As the Vegas Golden Knights swarmed Marc-Andre Fleury inside his crease at Bell MTS Place in Winnipeg, one of his most fervent supporters hoisted a sign amid a raucous fete back in Las Vegas.

Standing mere feet from a stage at the team’s official watch party, Paul James, a former air traffic control specialist at McCarran Airport, celebrated with a bevy of cheerleaders, thousands of fans and the team’s eponymous Golden Knight mascot, who waved a shiny rapier in triumph. The sign read: “Pouvoir Des Fleury” or “Flower Power,” underlining the acrobatic goaltender’s magnetic appeal to the team and city.

On Sunday, Fleury led the Knights to a 2-1 victory over the Winnipeg Jets, capping an improbable and amazing journey through the Western Conference playoffs. Over the series’ five games, Fleury constantly repelled a talented Jets lineup that included the imposing forward Mark Scheifele and the sharpshooter Patrik Laine.

With the victory, the Golden Knights joined the 1967-68 St. Louis Blues as the only expansion teams since 1960 in the N.H.L., N.B.A., M.L.B. and N.F.L. to earn a spot in a championship round during their inaugural seasons.

The Knights’ run to the finals is a remarkable achievement by any measure. Before the conference finals even started, the Knights were one of just three teams in N.H.L. history to win multiple playoff series in their inaugural season. The Toronto Arenas accomplished the feat in 1918 and the Blues advanced to the finals in their first year, when the N.H.L. doubled in size from the Original Six. The Blues were the beneficiary of a favorable playoff bracket that ensured an expansion team would receive a spot in the finals.

Other teams have had early success, but not in their inaugural seasons. The Florida Panthers made it to the Stanley Cup finals in 1995-96, their third year of existence, and lost to the Colorado Avalanche. In other professional sports, the Milwaukee Bucks captured the 1971 N.B.A. title three years after entering the league, and the Arizona Diamondbacks won the 2001 World Series in their fourth season. Both teams were led by big stars — the Bucks by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (known as Lew Alcindor at the time) and the Diamondbacks by Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling — who intimidated opponents with their brute strength and power. By contrast, the Knights are led by gritty, diminutive players, such as Jonathan Marchessault, the undrafted forward who appeared in 150 games in the American Hockey League before making his N.H.L. debut.

I’m not really a hockey fan, and haven’t followed the seemingly endless NHL playoffs at all, but this is nonetheless a fairly remarkable achievement. In most cases, it takes an expansion team at least a few years to get their act together to become real contenders even if they were able to take advantage of a favorable draft that allowed them to pick up top players in their inaugural and early seasons. I’m not entirely familiar with the process by which the Golden Knights were allowed to sign players. From the descriptions I’ve read, though, it doesn’t seem as though they were given overly favorable treatment in that respect, and that their success comes as something of a surprise to sports writers and fans alike. In any case, the Golden Knights will face either the Tampa Bay Lightning or the Washington Capitals in the Stanley Cup finals. Right now, Tampa leads that series 3 games to 2 and would secure a ticket to the finals with a win tonight. If Washington wins, then the deciding game seven will be on Wednesday. Whatever the final outcome, though, the big story of the finals will most likely be the first-timers from Las Vegas. Win or lose, they’ve already made a mark.

The success of the Golden Knights also comes at a time when the Las Vegas is set to become a player in professional sports in a way that hasn’t been seen before. The Oakland Raiders will be moving to Las Vegas in either 2019 or 2020 depending on when the stadium being built there is available, for example, and there has been discussion of an expansion NBA team and either an expansion or relocated Major League Baseball team in recent years as well. With the success that the Golden Knights are seeing, that talk seems likely to turn into action in the future.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Cory says:

    I remember seeing hockey writers after the NHL Expansion draft who felt Vegas would be historically bad. I am a more-than-casual hockey fan, and I think I recognized the names of 2 guys on the roster after the expansion draft concluded. This is pretty amazing.




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  2. george says:

    I think it shows just how competitive major league sports (especially a team game like hockey where you basically need nineteen strong players) have become. In sports in general, the difference between the absolute best and the top twenty is only a few percent (going by measured sports like track, swimming, weightlifting), and that expands to top one hundred in sports with millions of competitors. At the NHL level, everyone is extremely good (as in one in several thousand), and everyone gets excellent coaching from childhood on. If you can put together a team that works well together, its more important than having a few superstars (who are only a few percent better than the rest of the league to begin with). The Golden Knights managed to do that.

    Having an excellent goal tender is, of course, a necessary but not sufficient condition; its like having an ace pitcher in baseball, except the pitcher can’t play back to to back games, while the goal tender can.




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  3. Jc says:

    Would be interesting story line if Caps can get to the final and play against their former GM…Alas, this is DC sports we are talking about, so expect disappointment.




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  4. Mister Bluster says:

    Is this today’s OTB Sports Page?

    Stephan Curry Defies His Mama!
    I’ve said that before! Chill out mom!
    (It is his fvckin’ house!)




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  5. Bill says:

    I’m happy for Vegas. They are going to the SC Finals with a great deal of help from my….. Florida Panthers.

    Because Florida fired* Gerard Gallant 20 games into the 2016-17 season one year after the cats had their worst season ever. Gallant is now leading Vegas

    To compound matters, in the off season Florida let Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith two of their best scorers go to Vegas one in the draft and the other in a trade for a petrified star fish and a sack full of potpourri low draft pick in a move that has Florida fans scratching their heads today.

    The Gallant firing was the work of Elmer Fudd Tom Rowe the 60 year old that Florida ownership saw fit to make General Manager and then head coach who never held either position in the NHL before then. If Rowe was such a genius, why hadn’t another NHL make him either of those positions long ago? (I wrote that the night I learned of Gallant’s firing) The 2016-17 Panthers season was wrecked by this idiot and Florida set back several years because of it. Vegas came out great but if not for the idiots in Sunrise, Florida might have been there. They may have played the best hockey in the NHL since January 1st but not before digging too deep a hole this year because of the Rowe mess.




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  6. Guarneri says:

    Its totally amazing, but as a die hard hockey fan I can tell you its all about a cast off, but not washed up, goalie who got hot, and a team that has a chip on their shoulder because they were all given up by their former teams.

    I strongly suspect Tampa will be the other team in the finals. I went up to see them play the Hawks live during the season and they have all the elements. They are playing well. In the Finals? Anything can happen in the finals.

    Next year – the Hawks shall rise.




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  7. Guarneri says:

    For anyone not familiar, the goalie was with Pittsburgh. He has two or three rings.




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  8. teve tory says:

    @Mister Bluster:

    Is this today’s OTB Sports Page?

    if it is i’ll just note that vegas has Cleveland by 7 against Celtics tonight.




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  9. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Guarneri:

    I think it will be Tampa too, but then again I didn’t think the Caps would make it past the Pens.

    It’s been a good series to watch, all around.




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  10. michael reynolds says:

    I was in Vegas a week ago. As I was driving out of town with the top down (AC fan making noise) it was 111 F. A dry heat, but I could have baked a pizza. Totally a hockey town.




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  11. Kathy says:

    @michael reynolds:

    An indoor ice rink in the middle of a desert is indistinguishable from an indoor ice rink in the arctic circle.




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  12. Guarneri says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    Its been quality play by both. Its just that at times Tampa seems to have Wash on the run.




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  13. Mister Bluster says:

    A dry heat, but I could have baked a pizza. Totally a hockey town.

    Hockey Fans cracked on the Dallas Stars (nee Minnesota North Stars 1967-1993) just like that when the franchise relocated to Texas 25 years ago.
    It just didn’t seem possible that the Minnesota North Stars, his team for the first 13 seasons of a 17-season NHL career, would abandon his hockey-crazed home state for … Texas?




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  14. Guarneri says:

    @michael reynolds:

    You may have heard about this amazing invention called air conditioning……..




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  15. Mister Bluster says:

    LeBron James…four point shot!




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  16. @michael reynolds:

    Hockey has taken hold in a number of unexpected areas in the U.S. Granted, your typical hockey game doesn’t draw the audience, or the TV ratings, of an NFL football game, or even an MLB game, but it does decently enough apparently.

    What I’ve found somewhat amusing is the fact that it’s been 25 years since a Canadian team won the Stanley Cup and that in that 25 years a Canadian team has made it to the finals only four times. Granted, there are more NHL teams in the US now than in Canada, but, still, there is supposed be their national sport.




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  17. Guarneri says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Look at the countries of origin of the players, not the domicile of the team.




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  18. pylon says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    The Calgary Flames won in 2004. That puck was in, damn it.




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  19. Guarneri says:

    Congratulations Caps. Surprised, but they really earned it.




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