LOS ANGELES – Imagine putting another hockey team – an ice hockey team – in the desert and plopping it down behind the casinos on the Las Vegas Strip.
Imagine stocking it with players other teams didn’t want, and asking working people who had never seen hockey to pay major-league ticket prices to support the new team, called the Vegas Golden Knights.
Imagine these fans buying every ticket and screaming their lungs out at games for players they don’t know, dancing and believing and finding community in this new hockey team that became a rallying point after the mass murder of 58 people in their city.
And – stay with us now because this is the incredulous part – now imagine this team, the Golden Knights, not only competing in their first National Hockey League season, but winning. Imagine them winning 51 games and a division title and smashing virtually every expansion record.
This couldn’t happen. But it did. It’s still happening. Now imagine where else this could go.
The Golden Knights beat the once-formidable Los Angeles Kings 1-0 Tuesday to sweep the two-time Stanley Cup winners from the playoffs in four games and advance to the next round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Tuesday’s hero? Brayden McNabb, the former King who was exposed in the expansion draft and claimed by Vegas last June.
McNabb, who has 12 goals in nearly five NHL seasons as a stay-at-home defenceman, joined a Knights’ counter-attack and blasted in the winning goal in the arena that used to be his hockey home.
“That’s usually the way, eh?” Vegas veteran James Neal smiled.
These are the things that happen around the Golden Knights. And even then, you blink, hardly believing what you’re seeing. But it’s all very real. Just ask the Kings, who scored three goals in four games and looked in this series like the dying embers of the “heavy hockey” era.
“It feels pretty good, but I have a lot of respect for those guys over there,” McNabb said. “It’s been kind of a whirlwind of a year. A lot of fun and I’m really happy to be here. It feels pretty good to beat them.
Asked when he started believing the Knights could do what they’ve done, McNabb said: “We had a hot start [8-1] and everyone didn’t really know what to think or expect. Then we went on a road trip and had a little bit of a skid. But then we came back and beat two good teams back-to-back … and just kept building. We had a long winning streak and just kept building.”
And now here they are, the first playoff team to advance to the final eight – eight wins away from actually playing for the Stanley Cup in their first season.
“Yeah, it’s unbelievable,” Knights’ forward David Perron said. “We didn’t expect any of that, obviously, when all this started. Even when it started the playoffs, to sweep them? It’s a good feeling and we’re going to enjoy the rest we’re going to get.”
The Knights play the winner of the San Jose Sharks-Anaheim Ducks series, led 3-0 by the Northern California team with Game 4 Wednesday in Silicon Valley.
That eight-game winning streak McNabb referred to included a 3-2 win against the Kings on Dec. 28.
It was after that game that Los Angeles’ star defenceman, Drew Doughty, praised the Knights for the way they played but added: “There’s no way they’re going to be a better team than us by the end of the season.”
Vegas dusted L.A. by 11 points in the final standings, then dominated for much of the four playoff games. The Knights’ speed, puck movement and depth trumped the Kings’ size and experience.
And Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who made 31 saves on Tuesday, trumped Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick, which was not easy because the Kings’ netminder was the only one of his team’s high-priced stars who had his A-game in the playoffs.
Doughty was held pointless in his three games, and Kings centre Anze Kopitar didn’t look like a Hart Trophy candidate. The forward trio of Jeff Carter, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson didn’t register a playoff point between them.
The Knights scored only seven goals themselves, but their ability to defend was a revelation because even the few people who thought they’d beat the Kings probably expected them to do it with offence.
“Right now, we’re enjoying it and playing for each other and playing hard,” Neal said. “Having a lot of fun doing that. We’ll continue to get better here. Great job by us to finish it off tonight. We’ll get some rest and focus on the next team we’re going to play.”
And try not to think too much about what they’ve done so far, lest they realize it’s unimaginable.