Date: May 20, 2018

Golden Knights, in first NHL season, do the unthinkable in reaching Stanley Cup Final

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By Kevin Allen – USA TODAY

In a city where Frank Sinatra crooned, the Rat Pack roamed, Sugar Ray Leonard fought and Liberace headlined, the Golden Knights are proving to be one of the most celebrated acts in Las Vegas history.

The expansion Golden Knights defeated the Winnipeg Jets 2-1 on Sunday to win the Western Conference final in five games and earn an improbable berth to the Stanley Cup Final.

Fourth-liner Ryan Reaves, a Winnipeg native who was acquired at the trade deadline from the Pittsburgh Penguins in a complicated three-team deal, scored the game-winning goal in the second period.

If the Golden Knights triumph against either the Tampa Bay Lightning or Washington Capitals, they would be considered one of the most unlikely champions in sports history.

We are talking Buster Douglas taking down Mike Tyson, the 1969 New York “Miracle Mets” or No. 8-seed Villanova beating Georgetown to win the 1985 NCAA championship.

Historically, expansion teams are set up to initially fail. In the modern era, the Golden Knights, who went 51-24-7 in the regular season, are the first expansion team in the four major sports to post a winning record. The last two NHL expansion teams, the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild, won 28 and 25 games, respectively, in 2000-01.

Most experts predicted the Golden Knights would finish among the league’s worst teams. Nobody believed they could finish with the fifth-best record.

The Golden Knights might be the best team story in the NHL since the Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers rewrote the record book in the 1980s with four Stanley Cups in five seasons.

It is a feel-good tale. The Las Vegas community and the team bonded before the first puck was dropped because of the Oct. 1 tragedy that saw 58 people die in a mass shooting during a concert in the city. 

As team members supported the victims’ families and first responders, the connection with fans grew stronger. On opening night, Vegas defenseman Deryk Engelland made an emotional, inspirational speech at center ice that will never be forgotten.

The community was strong, and it turned out the team was strong on the ice. With speed, passion and aggressiveness, the Golden Knights have played a perfect style for this era of hockey.

The Golden Knights have become just as unique in their presentation of the game, using theatrics and creativity at T-Mobile Arena. Laser shows. Elvis impersonators. Showgirls. Skits. Swordplay. Wayne Newton. Humorous comedy bits on the video screen. A castle in the stands.

All of the players are popular, but none more so than goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, the former Pittsburgh Penguins star who has launched the second act of his career in Las Vegas.

Although the Golden Knights’ success has been an exciting story line, not everyone is celebrating it.

Some fans believe winning should take time. They point out important franchises have never won a Stanley Cup. The storied Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t won since 1967.

The NHL changed the player-protection rules in the expansion draft to give the Golden Knights a greater opportunity at forming a better roster than previous expansion teams.

The 30 other teams were allowed to protect seven forwards and three defensemen and one goalie or eight forwards/defensemen and one goalie.

That means the Golden Knights, in theory, landed the 10th- or 12th-best player on every team’s roster.

They were supposed to get third-line forwards and No. 4 defensemen, but they did better than that because general manager George McPhee shrewdly managed the assets to land first-liners James Neal, Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson and a top goalie in Fleury.

The Golden Knights have earned this impossible dream trip to the Stanley Cup Final.

Tre Kronor golden again!

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By Lucas Aykroyd IIHF.com

Filip Forsberg’s shootout goal lifted Sweden to a 3-2 win over Switzerland and a second straight IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship gold medal in Copenhagen on Sunday.

Forsberg coolly shot low to the glove side to beat Swiss goalie Leonardo Genoni. Oliver Ekman-Larsson also scored earlier in the shootout, as did Switzerland’s Sven Andrighetto. When Swedish netminder Anders Nilsson foiled Nino Niederreiter with his blocker, the celebration was on at Copenhagen’s Royal Arena.

Winning gold via the shootout under head coach Rikard Gronborg has become a habit for the boys in blue and yellow. Tre Kronor last won back-to-back titles in 1991 (Turku) and 1992 (Prague).

In regulation time, Gustav Nyqvist and Mika Zibanejad scored for Sweden. Nino Niederreiter and Timo Meier scored for Switzerland, while Roman Josi added two assists.

The underdog Swiss tragically missed their chance to win their first World Championship ever. While this was a huge achievement after only making the quarter-finals twice in the preceding four years, the loss will still sting for a long time. You just couldn’t come any closer to success.

The defending champions outshot Switzerland 38-27, giving Genoni another busy night after the 3-2 semi-final upset over Canada.

Nilsson, who made the tournament all-star team, entered with a tournament-leading 1.00 GAA and 95.9 save percentage. The towering 28-year-old Lulea native was well-protected in Denmark with an NHL-loaded defence corps, including fellow all-stars Ekman-Larsson and Adam Larsson, but he also rebounded after a lackluster season with the Vancouver Canucks.

The Swedes went wire-to-wire without losing a game. And although the Canadians finished fourth with a disappointing 4-1 bronze medal loss to the United States earlier, the motherland of hockey provided a subtext to this game.

Last year, Nicklas Backstrom got the shootout winner as Sweden edged Canada 2-1 for gold in Cologne. Canada was also the last nation to win back-to-back titles (2015, 2016).

It was a big bounceback for both Sweden and Switzerland after February’s PyeongChang Olympics. There, Germany shocked Switzerland 2-1 in the qualification playoffs and Sweden 4-3 in the quarterfinals, both in overtime.

This was a rematch of the 2013 World Championship final in Stockholm. There, Josi was named tournament MVP with another Cinderella squad, but Tre Kronor triumphed 5-1 with the help of late arrivals Henrik and Daniel Sedin. The victory broke the 27-year-old Worlds “home ice curse,” which dated back to the 1986 Soviet gold medal in Moscow.

This final attracted an enthusiastic sellout crowd of 12,490, dominated by yellow Tre Kronor jerseys, but also featuring lots of Swiss red and cowbells. It was a fitting climax to a tournament that exceeded expectations by selling more than 500,000 tickets.

The Swedes quickly settled into their puck possession groove, but the first good chance went to Niederreiter, who nearly finished off a three-way passing play on the rush by Nilsson’s right post. Seconds later, Viktor Arvidsson, who scored twice in the 6-0 semi-final win over the Americans, got in behind the Swiss defence. He had Genoni beaten with his deke, but backhanded the puck wide through the crease.

At 11:25, Niederreiter took the first penalty when he high-sticked Arvidsson deep in the Swiss zone. The Swedes peppered Genoni with shots, but couldn’t break through.

Atoning for his error, Niederreiter opened the scoring at 16:38. Off a faceoff at the Swedish blue line, Josi carried the puck into the Swiss zone and lost it in a thicket of Swedish defenders, but the Minnesota Wild veteran followed up and pushed it past a surprised Nilsson

Tre Kronor struck back just 1:16 later. With Hornqvist providing the screen in front, Nyqvist knocked down a Mattias Ekhom pass in the high slot and flung the puck over Genoni’s glove. The teams went to the dressing rooms tied 1-1 despite Sweden’s 13-7 edge in shots.

Early in the second period, Nyqvist played the goat when he high-sticked Ramon Untersander, Switzerland’s top-scoring defenceman. The power play looked like it would pass uneventfully – until Enzo found a wide-open Meier streaking down right wing. The San Jose Sharks youngster unleashed a wrister from the faceoff circle that beat Nilsson under his stick arm to make it 2-1 at 3:13. It was the first Swiss shot of the period with 10 seconds left in the man advantage.

Even though the recently retired Sedins aren’t here, the Swedes hemmed Switzerland in with great Sedin-style cycling for long stretches after the midway point. It paid off with Zibanejad’s 2-2 power play goal at 14:53 after Corvi went off for holding. Ekman-Larsson sent the puck cross-ice to the New York Rangers star, and he fired a wrister from the top of the right faceoff circle that sailed home.

Nilsson redeemed himself for the iffy Meier goal when he made huge, back-to-back blocker saves on Sven Andrighetto and Simon Moser in the last two minutes of the middle frame. At the other end, Genoni came out to stop Arvidsson’s slap shot on a 2-on-1 rush just before the buzzer.

The third period was cautiously played until Swedish captain Mikael Backlund stole the puck from Meier at centre and burst in for a backhand attempt. Josi hauled him down as Genoni made a left pad save, and the Swedish power play went to work again at the seven-minute mark. Solid positional play denied the Swedes. 

However, in a weird sequence, Josi went straight back into the penalty box because he had failed to exit it completely. He got an interference play for touching the puck while still standing inside the penalty box gate. Outraged by the call, the Swiss fans whistled deafeningly.

On the ensuing man advantage, Ekman-Larsson exploded down the middle on a solo rush and got shaken up when he crashed into the goal post and the end boards. However, the Arizona Coyotes workhorse would carry on. The Swedes got one more mind-blowing chance in the final minute of the third when Ekholm streaked in unopposed, but couldn’t beat Genoni.

Ekman-Larsson also had a superb chance near the eight-minute mark of overtime when Rakell found him with a back pass on the rush, but Genoni was there again as Ekman-Larsson went flying over a Swiss defender. A few minutes later, the Swiss goalie made a great glove grab on John Klingberg’s quick release from the high slot.

The Swiss came within a hair’s-breadth of victory when Kukan centered it from behind the goal line to Fiala in the slot, forcing Nilsson into a stunning glove save. At the other end, Larsson hammered one off the goal post with under three seconds left in sudden-death.

Prior to 2013’s silver, all the Swiss World Championship medals came prior to the modern era of international hockey that kicked off with the Soviet Union’s golden 1954 Worlds debut: silver in 1935, and bronze in 1930, 1937, 1939, 1950, 1951, and 1953.

With Sweden and Switzerland facing off for gold twice in six years, this could mark a new rivalry in international hockey. Where will it go next? Can the Swedes three-peat? Will the Swiss be back for more? Join us again for the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Slovakia (Bratislava and Kosice).

Bronze for Team USA

By Andy Potts – IIHF.com

Team USA claimed World Championship bronze – and local bragging rights – after it downed Canada 4-1 in Sunday’s afternoon’s match-up in Copenhagen. Chris Kreider led the way with two goals, Nick Bonino claimed the game-winner and Anders Lee scored the first of two empty-netters to give the Americans a winning scoreline that was more comfortable than the game suggested. Marc-Edouard Vlasic delivered Canada’s reply late in the second period.
The decisive goal came with six minutes left to play. Patrick Kane’s slapshot took a deflection on its way to McIlhenney’s pads and bounced away kindly for Nick Bonino to spring into action and push the puck into an empty net. That put the Americans 2-1 up and on the way to securing hardware for the first time since 2015’s bronze-medal campaign in the Czech Republic.
 
It was also a significant landmark for Kane. His assist brought up 20 points for the tournament, the first time a player has reached that tally since Danny Heatley (12+8) for Canada in 2008. Kane is also poised to become the first American player to top the scoring race since 1949, when centre Bruce Mather led the way with 19 goals as the USA took bronze in Stockholm.
There were still some nervous moments for the U.S. Ryan O’Reilly, Canada’s quarter-final hero, almost delivered another crucial blow with two minutes left. The puck dropped kindly for the Buffalo forward, but he squirted his shot wide of the mark. That miss was punished by Lee, who fired into the empty net from his own zone to wrap up the win for the Americans. Kreider then made absolutely sure with a fourth goal for the USA.

Bronze-medal games can sometimes feel like a chore for two teams still coming to terms with the abrupt crash of their championship dreams. That emotion is often intensified when the play-off puts together rosters with genuine hopes of winning it all and the opening period here was an illustration of precisely that.

It wasn’t that it was a poor game, exactly, but the early exchanges stubbornly refused to ignite in the manner we’ve come to expect from USA-Canada clashes of yore. The Americans made the brighter start and bossed the game for the first 10 minutes. Then a penalty on Connor Murphy brought Canada to the table – albeit only after a Dylan Larkin intercept in centre ice created a short-handed rush that drew a good save from Curtis McElhinney. Ironically, Keith Kincaid’s most eye-catching moment of the first frame also came with his team on the power play. Bo Horvat was bearing down on the net but Kincaid rushed from his crease to hack the puck to safety.

The opening goal took time to arrive but the USA finally turned its supremacy into a goal in the 27th minute. But while Chris Kreider’s finish – calmly dragging the puck around McElhinney’s outstretched leg – was composed, there was a kindly bounce on the play as Dylan Larkin’s feed into the Canadian zone got tangled up in Connor McDavid’s skates present Kreider with the chance for his third of the tournament.

Nick Bonino then got a great pass from Johnny Gaudreau and wriggled in front of Josh Bailey as he bore down on McElhinney’s net. This time, though, there was no space to squeeze the puck past the Canadian goalie. Canada was still struggling to create clear openings, but Matt Barzal almost fashioned one when he moved along the goal line to shoot from the doorstep. Kinkaid made a fumbling save but recovered to deny Ryan O’Reilly a sniff of the rebound.

The game’s pivotal moment came late in the second period. The Americans carved out a glorious chance to go 2-0 up when Bonino slid the puck across the face of the net for Nick Jensen at the back door, but the defenceman’s shot found the side netting and bounced to safety. Canada came straight back up the ice and swiftly punished that miss.

Marc-Edouard Vlasic got the tying goal, collecting a Bo Horvat feed between the hash marks and shooting home through traffic. In the space of 15 seconds, Canada went from staring down the barrel of a two-goal deficit to being right back in the game. But the third period saw the USA take control in the closing stages and leave Denmark with the bronze medals.