Las Vegas Sun

September 25, 2018

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Scenes from the Vegas Golden Knights’ playoff run

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VGK heroes (clockwise from top) James Neal, Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson.

A laundry basket on wheels sat at the center of the Golden Knights’ muted locker room after the team’s season-ending 4-3 loss to the Washington Capitals in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final on June 7. One by one, the players tossed their sweat-drenched jerseys onto the pile face down. The placement presumably wasn’t intentional, but maybe the sweaters were better off with their Stanley Cup Final patches hidden from view. “It’s the worst feeling ever,” defenseman Deryk Engelland said. “You never want to lose any game, but at this point, it’s awful.”

Following every other loss during the Golden Knights’ playoff run, the locker room was filled with one of two emotions: a seemingly unbreakable air of confidence or similarly unyielding anger.

The former theme prevailed in a gut-wrenching double-overtime defeat to San Jose in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals. The Golden Knights fell 4-3 to the Sharks in a contest that had enough twists to be misconstrued as a preposterous movie script.

Vegas celebrated on the ice at T-Mobile Arena in the first overtime period after Jonathan Marchessault netted the game-winner, but the play was subsequently reviewed and controversially called off for goaltender interference. San Jose took advantage and won to tie the series at 1-1, but it didn’t affect the Golden Knights’ outlook in the slightest.

They stood tall in front of the cameras and professed excitement to go to San Jose and get revenge. “It’s forgotten about,” forward Erik Haula said. “It stings a little bit, but overall our confidence hasn’t gone anywhere.”

The Golden Knights would go on to capture three of the next four games to clinch the series.

To start the conference finals in Winnipeg, the Jets bombarded the Golden Knights with three goals in the first 10 minutes to blow them off the ice.

Instead of cowering after a 4-2 defeat, Marchessault peered directly into a sea of cameras and delivered a steadfast message.

“We are going to show what kind of a team we are,” the Golden Knights’ leading playoff scorer promised. “It’s definitely a must-win next game, and I think as a group everybody needs to step up.”

They did just that behind Marchessault, who scored two goals in a 3-1 Game 2 victory to start a five-game winning streak for the Golden Knights that stretched into the Stanley Cup Final.

There was no more time for redemption after the final buzzer sounded against Washington on June 7, as the Golden Knights could only hang their heads over the bench boards and watch the Capitals celebrate on their home ice.

Third-line center Cody Eakin skated past the bench and tapped every player on the helmet with his glove in a gesture of solidarity.

It wasn’t the ending the Golden Knights wanted, but they produced a number of moments throughout the postseason on the way to the Stanley Cup Final that will never be forgotten.

The Golden Knights cruised through the Western Conference portion of the playoffs, and did it in a manner coach Gerard Gallant preached from the day he took the job—by having fun.

It started with a first-round sweep over the rival Los Angeles Kings. On the day between Games 3 and 4 in LA, several Golden Knights players gathered outside the Staples Center around the corner from the players’ entrance to the arena.

They formed a circle and kicked a soccer ball around as an exercise to stay loose. It’s a game in which they partook throughout the year, trying to volley the soccer ball as many times as possible using their feet, knees, chest and heads without letting it touch the ground.

On the off-day, it started as a casual warm-up before transforming into a competitive match, with players vaulting into the air and diving on the concrete. The Golden Knights joked, laughed and razzed each other while ignoring the statue right beside them that honored the Kings’ Stanley Cup titles in 2012 and 2014.

Vegas never flinched at the Kings’ playoff pedigree.

The Golden Knights more or less breezed through the next two rounds, with only three combined losses to the Sharks and Jets despite losing William Carrier to an upper-body injury and David Perron to a pair of 103-degree fevers.

Vegas continued its tear with a 6-4 win in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final and had a chance to take control of Game 2 late before the paddle of Capitals goalie Braden Holtby’s stick changed history. Alex Tuch had a wide-open net for a game-tying goal in the waning moments, but Holtby lunged across the crease and blocked a shot with his stick.

The save swung the momentum of the series, and has already gone down in Washington, D.C., sports lore. Fans immediately coined the moment, “The Save,” and had shirts printed with a photo by the time the series shifted to Washington three days later.

“It was a great save by Holtby,” Tuch said. “I’ve got to bury that chance, and it could have changed the outcome of the game.”

The Golden Knights could never recover after the save, but even after three consecutive losses to the Capitals, they maintained the effervescent nature they believed enabled their success all season.

Before Game 5, players gathered in the bowels of T-Mobile Arena outside the Zamboni garage and formed a circle. Behind a black curtain, all onlookers could observe was a soccer ball occasionally lofting into view, and all they could hear was the sound of laughter.

This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly