Thursday, May 24, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Journey to the Cup
The journey to the Stanley Cup Final for the newbie Vegas Golden Knights started with a challenge: If Las Vegans wanted an NHL expansion team, they had to earn it.
Secure at least 10,000 season-ticket deposits and the NHL would grant us a franchise. Fast-forward to the first season.
All 41 home games sold out, and tickets were some of the most expensive in the league. We’ve created the best atmosphere in the NHL at T-Mobile Arena because our city passionately loves its first major-league franchise. Even practices feature standing-room-only crowds.
And the party’s just getting started. Bring on the Eastern Conference champions.
The Knights are the surprise participants in the Stanley Cup, becoming the first expansion team—in any major sport—to reach the championship in their initial season. In October, they were 500-to-1 to win the Cup, meaning four more wins would signal the most significant loss for sports books in NHL history.
This team. Unreal.
Skeptics in the initial months of the season credited home victories to the “Vegas Flu,” claiming the opposition spent too much time enjoying Las Vegas’ nightlife and performed poorly in the following day’s game. They also said Vegas’ style of play—hockey’s version of the basketball fast break—wouldn’t work in the playoffs, where teams playing a physical style tend to win. Yet, Vegas has lost just three playoff contests.
Cities wait decades for a chance to experience the high of a championship run (see: the long-suffering fanbase in Cleveland before LeBron James led the Cavaliers to an NBA title). The same theory holds true with individual franchises—in recent years, the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox broke through after decades of heartbreak. Some teams go years without a single playoff appearance or winning season.
Not Vegas. In the first year, it has rewritten the record books. “We are going to keep doing what we do best, and that’s proving people wrong,” Vegas first-liner Jonathan Marchessault said. “Whoever we’re facing, we probably aren’t going to be favored next round, so that’s just the way it goes.”
The majority of Vegas’ core—Marchessault, William Karlsson, Reilly Smith, Erik Haula, Nate Schmidt, Brayden McNabb, Shea Theodore and others—are all having career seasons. Goalie Marc-André Fleury has been phenomenal.
Most importantly, the roster immediately bonded to bring the city a winner. We love winners in Vegas. And we love our Golden Knights. Four more wins. Four more wins.
— Ray Brewer
It's all happened so quickly. The Vegas Golden Knights have gone from an expansion franchise with few expectations around the NHL to the Stanley Cup Final. What a first season, right?
The season has included many moments that left us cheering — from James Neal’s game-winner in the first game at Dallas to Deryk Engelland’s heartfelt speech in the home opener during a tribute to the Oct. 1 mass shooting victims.
We’ve fallen in love with this team’s journey. Many of us have a favorite player — or several — and can easily recall moments from throughout the season.
Here’s a look at 10 of those — the games and goals that were pivotal in the Knights’ unprecedented journey. It’s only part of what has defined this improbable season.
1. Oct. 6, 2017 at Dallas (2-1 win)
The first game in franchise history ended in dramatic fashion. The upstart Golden Knights were outplayed for almost the entire night, with the Stars outshooting them 46-30, but Marc-André Fleury made the necessary stops, and James Neal scored two huge goals to complete the come-from-behind win. We wouldn’t know it at the time, but it was an appropriate start to an unbelievable season.
2. Oct. 10, 2017 vs. Arizona (5-2 win)
After nine days of grieving following the tragic shooting massacre on the Las Vegas Strip, the Golden Knights helped heal the city and take people’s minds off the horror, if only briefly. It started with a touching ceremony honoring the victims and an emotional speech by Deryk Engelland that ended with, “We are Vegas strong.” Vegas then scored four goals in the first 11 minutes to run away with a victory over the Coyotes.
3. Oct. 27, 2017 vs. Colorado (7-0 win)
Before the game, coach Gerard Gallant was asked if he was worried about his team overlooking the Avalanche. He replied, “We are an expansion team. Every team is better than us.” Hours later, the Knights put a 7-0 beatdown on Colorado despite being without their’ top two goalies, who were both out with injury. It was the last game of a seven-game homestand in which Vegas went 6-1-0.
4. Dec. 14, 2017 vs. Pittsburgh (2-1 win)
Since June’s expansion draft, Fleury has been the face of the Golden Knights. In December, Vegas hosted his former team, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Fleury spent his first 13 seasons playing for Pittsburgh and lifted the Stanley Cup three times in the black and gold. It was an emotional game for him, and Fleury stopped 24 of 25 shots to help the Golden Knights take down the two-time defending champions and improve their record to 26-9-2 on the season.
5. Dec. 31, 2017 vs. Toronto (6-3 win)
It’s a New Year’s tradition to toss hats in the air when the clock strikes midnight. This year, Golden Knights fans partook in the tradition a few hours early, throwing their caps on the ice at T-Mobile Arena to celebrate William Karlsson’s three goals—the first hat trick in franchise history. It was the coming-out party for Vegas’ fastest-rising star and also the team’s seventh consecutive win.
6. Mar. 26, 2018 vs. Colorado (4-1 win)
Fleury stopped 28 of 29 shots to help the Golden Knights take down the Avalanche 4-1 and punch their ticket to the Stanley Cup playoffs. Vegas became the first expansion team in the modern era to qualify for the postseason, and did it with a week and a half still left in the regular season.
7. Mar. 31, 2018 vs. San Jose (3-2 win)
Karlsson stole the puck late in the third period during a Sharks’ power play. He streaked down the ice along the left boards, cut toward the net, slid the puck between his own legs and lifted it over goaltender Martin Jones into the net. The spectacular goal made Karlsson the star of every sports highlight in North America and clinched the Pacific Division for the Golden Knights.
8. April 13, 2018 vs. Los Angeles (2-1 double OT win)
Golden Knights fans got their first taste of sudden-death overtime in Game 2 of the first-round playoff series with the LA Kings. The double-overtime contest stretched until 11:20 p.m. Pacific Time (past 2 a.m. on the East Coast), until Erik Haula ended it with Vegas’ 56th shot on goal. A streaking Haula received a pass from Neal entering the Kings’ zone, ducked around goaltender Jonathan Quick and slid it through his legs to bring the sellout crowd to its feet.
9. May 4, 2018 vs. San Jose (5-3 win)
After cruising to a 4-0 sweep in the first round, the Golden Knights finally faced adversity in the second round against the Sharks. San Jose evened the series at two games apiece with a dominant 4-0 win in Game 4, and the series shifted to Las Vegas for a pivotal Game 5. The Golden Knights answered with two goals by Alex Tuch in a 5-3 win to take a 3-2 series lead, and they would end it in Game 6 in San Jose.
10. May 14, 2018 at Winnipeg (3-1 win)
All season, the Golden Knights ran teams out of the building at T-Mobile Arena, riding the wave of momentum created by the raucous crowd to an early lead. In Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, they got a taste of their own medicine when the Jets scored three times in the first eight minutes en route to a dominant 4-2 win. Two days later, Vegas bounced back strong with a 3-1 win on the road to even the series in a game Jonathan Marchessault called a “must-win.” It was the first of four consecutive wins for the Knights, putting them in the Stanley Cup Final.
This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.