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September 24, 2018

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Golden Knights’ season will be defined by bond they formed with Las Vegas

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Steve Marcus

The Vegas Golden Knights salute fans before leaving the ice after losing to the Washington Capitals in Game 5 of the NHL Stanley Cup Final at T-Mobile Arena Thursday, June 7, 2018.

Washington Capitals Win Stanley Cup

The Vegas Golden Knights give a salute to fans before leaving the ice after losing to the Washington Capitals in Game 5 of the NHL Stanley Cup Final at T-Mobile Arena Thursday, June 7, 2018. Launch slideshow »

Stanley Cup Final Game 5 Fans

Washington Capitals fans celebrate following the Capitals Game 5 NHL Stanley Cup Final 4-3 win against the Vegas Golden Knights at Toshiba Plaza outside T-Mobile Arena, Thursday, June 7, 2018. Launch slideshow »

This isn’t how this was supposed to end.

The Golden Knights storybook season turned its final page Thursday night at T-Mobile Arena, with the players standing in shock at their blue line, staring down the rink as the Washington Capitals dogpiled in celebration after winning the first Stanley Cup in their 44-year franchise history.

“It’s the worst feeling ever,” Golden Knights defenseman Deryk Engelland said. “You never want to lose any game, but at this point it’s awful.”

But what will define this season is what happened next.

Each player tapped their stick on the ice and raised it high above their heads as a final salute to the fans. Thousands of steel gray and gold-clad faithful rose to their feet and cheered on their Knights — the first major professional team many of them have ever had to call their own.

It was far and away the single greatest inaugural season by an expansion team in sports history, but it’s tough to decide which was more surprising — the Golden Knights’ results on the ice or the way a city in the middle of the desert rallied around them.

In all its history, Las Vegas has been defined by a 4.2-mile stretch of road and all the gambling, partying and various trappings. Nearly 500 commercial planes fly into McCarran International Airport every day, and they almost always end their flight with a joke from the captain along the lines of “Welcome to lost wages,” or another corny joke about the Strip.

But a recent flight from Winnipeg during the Western Conference finals series ended with an announcement saying, “Welcome to Las Vegas, home of our Golden Knights,” and elicited a cabin full of cheers.

The key word is “our.”

It’s not to discredit UNLV basketball and the amazing runs it made, but as a college there are factions of Las Vegans that don’t identify with the Runnin' Rebels. For the first time ever, native Las Vegans had something beyond the tourist attractions to represent them. Something to be proud of.

The Golden Knights may have better teams than this one. It was, after all, their first season. But this group of players and the bond they formed with the city will never be matched.

It started on Oct. 1, when a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in what would be the deadliest mass shooting by an individual in modern U.S. history.

Only hours after the shooting, players who hadn’t lived in Las Vegas for more than several weeks immediately asked what they could do. They visited first responders at the Metro Police station, stood in line with volunteers at food banks and met with victims.

“(I’m most proud of) the group in here,” Engelland said. “Coming together as quick as they could and getting into the community after a horrible tragedy, and going on a run. We came up a little short.”

The players treated Las Vegas as their home, and the fans immediately latched on.

“It was seriously an amazing experience,” Jonathan Marchessault said. “I’ve never felt part of a family like this. The community was unbelievable and the fans were amazing. I’ve never wanted to go to war more with a bunch of guys and it’s been fun.”

During preseason training camp, the red bleachers at City National Arena were usually empty. That changed quickly, as fans started packing the facility so full that the team had to place restrictions on practice attendance for safety concerns.

Many doubted the Golden Knights as a hockey team, and they proved them wrong to the tune of 51 regular-season wins, a Pacific Division crown and a Western Conference championship.

“No one gave us a chance at all from the start,” David Perron said. “I don’t think anyone believed it when we were doing interviews over the summer, getting picked by Vegas. It’s going to be a fun experience but not much else, and it was one heck of a ride.”

Las Vegas as a hockey market was similarly doubted, but the fans sold out T-Mobile Arena for every single home game, set new records for ticket prices in the playoffs, and wrapped lines around the building, waiting hours for a chance to see the team run a 20-minute morning skate.

The players brought the Stanley Cup Final to Las Vegas with their play, and the city showed it belonged. T-Mobile Arena arguably provided the best home-ice advantage in the NHL, especially in the playoffs. The 18,000-plus fans screaming at the top of their lungs and waving battle towels above their heads made Las Vegas a nightmare for opposing teams all season long, but eventually the Capitals solved the Golden Knights’ riddle.

“It’s difficult to come up short,” a glassy-eyed Alex Tuch said, fighting back his emotions in the locker room after the game. “I had the time of my life, but it wouldn’t be the same without this group of guys.”

The heartbreak Tuch and his teammates felt Thursday night as they watched Alex Ovechkin and the rest of the Washington Capitals lift the Stanley Cup is probably similar to the thousands of fans around the valley whose emotions swung on every pass, save and goal.

“Thank you for all the support throughout the season,” goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said, as his message to the fans. “From Day One they’ve been incredible. I’m sorry we couldn’t bring it home.”

Fleury has no need to be sorry. The Golden Knights didn’t deliver a championship, but they gave Las Vegans something better.

For many heartbroken Golden Knights fans, this is the first time they’ve ever had a home team to care this much for. The Golden Knights offered a distraction after the worst tragedy in Las Vegas history, they provided regular fixes of euphoria during their run to the Stanley Cup Final, and in the end, they provided the heartache that inevitably accompanies having a team to care about.

“At the end of the day, we had a taste of it,” Marchessault said. “You don’t want to finish on a note like that necessarily, and one thing I know is we’ll be back.”

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