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.

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