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September 18, 2018

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Golden Knights aren’t concerned with hockey tradition — just winning

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Trevor Hagan/The Canadian Press via AP

Vegas Golden Knights’ James Neal (18), Deryk Engelland (5), goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (29) and the rest of the team celebrate after defeating the Winnipeg Jets during NHL Western Conference Finals, game 5, in Winnipeg, Sunday, May 20, 2018.

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — When the Golden Knights clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup Final on Sunday, the players continued their path of total disregard of history, records and tradition that has led them to hockey’s holy grail.

When the clock hit zero and the Golden Knights completed their 4-1 series win over the Winnipeg Jets to advance to the final, the players climbed over the bench and raced to celebrate with their leader, Marc-Andre Fleury.

Most congregated in one giant huddle while some like Jonathan Marchessault and Erik Haula embraced individually while leaping off the ice in pure euphoria.

NHL officials rolled a carpet onto the ice and placed the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl — awarded to the conference champion — on a round table cloaked in a black tablecloth.

Without a moment’s hesitation, Deryk Engelland skated up to it, posed for a picture and lifted the trophy off the table. He carried it in celebration through the tunnel and back into the locker room.

Nearly all of the sold-out crowd at Bell MTS Place stayed after the final buzzer to cheer their Jets on one last time despite the disappointing end to their season. When Engelland touched the trophy, a collective gasp echoed throughout the arena.

Many NHL players — and fans, apparently — think it’s bad luck to touch the conference championship trophy, and doing so is a bad omen with a series still to be won to hoist the trophy they really want: Lord Stanley.

But if there’s one thing the Golden Knights have shown during this unbelievable maiden campaign, it’s that they do not care about tradition. They’ve done nearly everything contrary to popular belief, from their in-game entertainment that includes showgirls and the Blue Man Group dancing in the stands, to their up-tempo style of play that many believed wouldn’t translate to the playoffs.

“We talked about (touching the trophy) beforehand as a team,” Jonathan Marchessault said. “We went against the odds all year.”

Why stop now?

The Golden Knights have done things their way to get to this point. A place that four franchises have never seen.

The Blue Jackets, Wild, Coyotes and Jets have been in the NHL a combined 60 seasons and have never made the Stanley Cup Final. The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t been to a Stanley Cup Final in 51 years. The Golden Knights just made it and 544 days ago they didn’t have a team name.

“We are going to keep doing what we do best and that’s proving people wrong,” Marchessault said. “Whoever we’re facing we probably aren’t going to be favored next round, so that’s just the way it goes.”

He’s half right. According to Jeff Sherman, manager of the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook, the Golden Knights will open as plus-130 underdogs if they face the Tampa Bay Lightning in the final but minus-140 favorites if they play the Washington Capitals. Tampa Bay leads the series 3-2.

“All of the work that we’ve done, if we come up short it will mean nothing,” Marchessault said. “Obviously all of those records and everything doesn’t mean anything if you aren’t the last team standing, and I think we have a lot of gas left.”

The records Marchessault speaks of are too numerous to list and include his 18 points as the most during a postseason for a team in its first playoff run. The team has rewritten the record books all season and doesn’t appear ready to stop.

“It gives you chills, honestly,” Erik Haula said. “You just try to enjoy the moment because this is what you dream of and you can only hope for a chance to play for the Cup and that’s what we have right now.”

That’s why grabbing the trophy is the right thing to do. Ask the 1996 Florida Panthers — who won the Eastern Conference, lost in the final and haven’t been back since — if they would enjoy that moment if they could go back in time.

Not every Golden Knights player was eager to grab the silver bowl. This is, admittedly, a deep-rooted superstition.

“I wasn’t going to touch it,” Alex Tuch said, laughing. “I’m a rookie so I follow what they say. If they tell me to touch it, I’ll touch it, if they tell me not to, I won’t. Notice I haven’t trimmed the beard or the hair at all. I’m not touching anything. I’m all in and our whole team is all in.”

Nate Schmidt felt his share of playoff heartbreak in his time with the Capitals and wasn’t going to be the first one to lay a finger on the trophy.

“I don’t have superstitions and I really don’t see anything behind it, to be honest,” Schmidt said. “It was probably Engelland’s decision and I’m not going to say anything to him. He’s a lot bigger than I am so I don’t really disagree with a lot of things he says or does. He can do things with his fists that I can’t, so he can do whatever he wants.”

But while Engelland had the honors of lifting it first, it wasn’t his decision at all.

“We went with the experience here,” he said during the postgame press conference, putting his hand on the shoulder of his three-time Stanley Cup champion goalie. “(Fleury) has been the backbone for our team. It more or less came down to whatever he wanted to do.”

Fleury went to four Stanley Cup Finals in Pittsburgh. He went 3-0 in the final after his team touched the conference championship trophy and lost the time they didn’t.

When Engelland caught the Canadian crowd off guard by nonchalantly grabbing the trophy, it certainly wasn’t the first time the Golden Knights shocked the hockey traditionalists, and it likely won’t be the last.

“We are a group of guys that didn’t find a home last year,” Marchessault said, referring to players being exposed by their former teams in the expansion draft. “We are all in the same situation and we want to battle for each other. I think everybody out here is a great teammate. When someone gets a goal we are all happy for them. There’s no jealousy, no competition, just happiness for everyone and it’s a big family.”

Jesse Granger can be reached at 702-259-8814 or [email protected]. Follow Jesse on Twitter at twitter.com/JesseGranger_.

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