“We’ll be pretty good in three years and we’ll make a run in five or six,” predicted Golden Knights owner Bill Foley back in August. “This team isn’t going to have more than a dozen regulation wins,” predicted some dummy. This was, to put it as plainly as I can—and it’s a sentiment that wouldn’t have found and won’t currently find much opposition in the VGK dressing room—not supposed to happen.
The Vegas Golden Knights, displaying an utter disregard for history or expectations, are going to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season, after a grind-it-out 2-1 win over the Jets in Game 5. Did you ever, in your wildest fever dreams, think you’d see the Knights in a handshake line so soon? Did you believe you’d see them on the happy end of one? Did you ever dare imagine that it would be their third, with one more to go?
No fluke, this. The Winnipeg Jets were reckoned the best team left alive, after besting in seven games the league’s other best team, and they ran into a buzzsaw. After losing Game 1, Vegas never trailed again in this series, 240 straight minutes. The fearsome Winnipeg offense was silenced, scoring only 10 goals in five games—just six in their final four. The Golden Knights were fresher, faster, stouter, and are 12-3 in the postseason. Not bad for a bunch of players nobody wanted a year ago—not even, necessarily, Vegas GM George McPhee.
“We are a group of guys that didn’t find a home last year,” Jonathan 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.”
“We call ourselves the Golden Misfits for a reason,” said Ryan Reaves, who scored the game-winning goal on a deflection in the second period, his first postseason point and his first goal since coming over from Pittsburgh three days before the trade deadline.
For many of them, not merely unwanted, but so unwanted that they served as collateral. McPhee cut deals with the league’s other GMs where he agreed to select certain players in exchange for not touching others, and so much of the collateral turned into the Knights’ most valuable players, plus assets:
Florida sent along Jonathan Marchessault to get Vegas to take Reilly Smith. Minnesota gave up Alex Tuch so they would take Erik Haula. Anaheim sacrificed Shea Theodore to convince Vegas to take Clayton Stoner. Pittsburgh gave up a second-round pick to insure VGK would select Marc-Andre Fleury. Columbus sent along a first and a second so Vegas would take William Karlsson and David Clarkson’s contract. That’s the core of this team right there.
(McPhee, in the dressing room after Sunday’s win, bowed out after just a few questions from the press. “You know what, this should be about the players,” he told reporters.)
You’re going to hear a lot of talk in the coming days that this is an indictment of the NHL. That many GMs are idiots, or that the expansion draft rules were rigged to produce an immediately successful team. There may be elements of truth to both, but this is revisionist history. Even after the draft, no one thought the Golden Knights would be anywhere close to good, let alone this. Because this—let us name it again, as if saying it will make it feel any more logical: Vegas is going to a Stanley Cup Final—was inconceivable. But rather than hang this on conspiracy theories or leaguewide incompetence, why not celebrate it as a ludicrously unexpected underdog story? At heart, that’s why we bother watching sports.
When it came time to accept the Campbell Bowl as West champions, the Knights don’t have a captain, so they sent out veteran Deryk Engelland. Without a moment’s hesitation, he grabbed the damn thing, eliciting a gasp from the Winnipeg crowd:
There’s a superstition among some hockey players that you’re not supposed to touch the conference trophy, or you won’t win the big hardware. It’s obviously bull. Engelland said they had been encouraged by Fleury to touch the bowl, because, as Fleury noted, Sidney Crosby always does and together they won three Stanley Cups. “We talked about [touching the trophy] beforehand as a team,” Marchessault revealed. “We went against the odds all year.”
You’ll notice Fleury’s logic is all about winning that Cup now. Because expectations are a funny thing. A team that wasn’t supposed to do this, that was supposed to be booking tee times months ago, still wants more. “We are going to keep doing what we do best and that’s proving people wrong,” Marchessault said. It’s really the only way to be. Hockey players that would have been satisfied with just a finals appearance probably never would have achieved any of this.