WINNIPEG – The Vegas Golden Knights may be the first expansion team that never looked like one.
They won six of their first seven games in the National Hockey League and never dipped remotely close to .500 after that. The Stanley Cup playoffs were supposed to expose them as frauds – or at least spectacular over-achievers – and yet the Knights sailed in the first two rounds past tough California teams, going 8-2 against the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks and earning precious rest time during the hardest part of the season.
Ask the Vegas players and you’ll hear that they haven’t felt like an expansion team since October. They hate the implied limitations of being called an expansion team, yet love the label. Because their remarkable success has been driven by stubborn pride and their desire to prove everyone wrong.
The Knights believe in themselves, and like that so few others believe in them.
Give them little chance to beat a formidable Winnipeg Jets team in the Western Conference final? Bring it on.
“We keep hearing that stuff,” Vegas defenceman Luca Sbisa said after the morning skate ahead of Game 1 on Saturday night. “People have been saying: ‘They’re eventually going to run out of gas’ or ‘their emotions are going to drop, you’re going to crash eventually.’ We just keep going. We faced some pretty good adversity all year with injuries. We went down to our fifth goalie, you know? But we kept winning.
“People said we were going to lose in the first round, the second round and now they’re saying we’re definitely going to lose this round. But we don’t listen to those outsiders. It’s been a fun trip. [We are] misfits that no one really wanted or people gave up on. And look where we are now.”
Four wins from actual playing for the Stanley Cup.
Indisputably, the Knights benefitted from generous expansion-draft guidelines that forced a lot of teams to surrender players they didn’t want to lose. Still, all of those teams had the option to keep these players and chose not to.
That’s fuel for the Knights. Being an expansion team is fuel. Being so frequently dismissed, as they seem to be now against the Jets, is fuel. That’s a lot of fuel to drive the engine.
“I think everyone’s been so frigging hungry this year that they’re playing with a chip on their shoulder,” centre Cody Eakin, the former Dallas Star, said. “We’ve all been let go by somebody for whatever reason. Whatever the case may be, no one is bigger than the team. Being let go is a little bit humbling for everyone, so you want to be the best team guy you can be, the best player you can be.”
The best team.
Freed by coach Gerard Gallant to play to their strengths, the Knights have over-run teams with their speed and depth. They attack directly and in numbers. They’re not complicated, and yet not one has stopped them. It helps that Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, the three-time Stanley Cup winner from the Pittsburgh Penguins, has been the playoffs’ most valuable player so far.
“I feel like people still don’t want to believe it,” veteran James Neal said of the Knights’ success. “Is it really happening? What are they still doing around? That’s fine. For us, we come to the rink every day and have fun with each other playing the game that we love.”
Neal played in the Stanley Cup Final for the Nashville Predators last season and could play in another for the Knights this spring.
He saw the Jets eliminate his former team on Thursday. Of all the guys in the Vegas lineup, only defenceman Nate Schmidt’s old team, the Washington Capitals, is still playing. Knights players have outperformed the teams they left.
“We’ve had fun enjoying the expansion thing for a while, so I think we’re going to stick to that,” Schmidt said. “We’ve thought we had this [ability] in our room. It’s just, how far do you want to take it? How much do you believe in how far your team can go?”
What others believe does not matter.