LAS VEGAS – Do you dare stare at the light?
You’ve come this far, spent your life travelling here, dreaming of one day playing for this opportunity. And here it is, your chance to compete for the Stanley Cup. One win away from the Vegas Golden Knights. Do they see it there, only an arm’s length out of reach now? One more win.
The unfathomable Knights, the first year-team team comprised of National Hockey League castoffs and launched last October amid the emotional hurricane of one of the worst crimes in American history, moved one victory away from competing for the Stanley Cup by beating the Winnipeg Jets 3-2 on Friday.
Vegas leads the Western Conference Final 3-1 and on Sunday can eliminate the Jets, Canada’s best hope since the 2011 Vancouver Canucks to break the 25-year Stanley Cup famine in the country where hockey is loved the most.
Most people would have figured the Knights might win 30 games this season. They won 51, plus 11 more in the playoffs (against only three losses). You can try to explain it, but you will fail.
It’s not luck and it’s certainly not just their goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury. You can’t name all the things that have occurred to bring the Knights to this point. There are too many.
And yet, if you could name them all, it still wouldn’t adequately explain it.
“No, I can’t fully explain it,” Vegas general manager George McPhee, the chief architect of this miracle, told Sportsnet on Friday. “I’m not sure I want to try.”
“I don’t think I could,” defenceman Nate Schmidt said. “I could try and paint a picture for you. I could try and say we have great goaltending, we play great defence together, we have a team that really cares for each other. I can tell you that we’ve had a lot of guys elevate their game and we keep our emotions in check.
“I think chemistry is truly important to our team. That is what drives our team. At the end of the day, there is not a guy in here. . . that wouldn’t dive in front of a shot face-first for the guy next to him. I can’t say much more than that about a team. That’s about as good as it gets.”
The Jets are about as good as it gets in the NHL. Tn the last round they eliminated the only team that finished ahead of them during the regular season. The Jets appear to have everything: formidable size, speed and skill, a handful of talented scorers, a deep lineup, a good defence led by an impact player, and an excellent goaltender.
And the Jets are playing well. But they’re still losing. They’ve lost three straight since beating Vegas in Game 1 when the Knights hadn’t played in almost a week.
Each time the Jets appear to break through with a goal, the Knights counter immediately.
They always seem to get the goal they need, like Reilly Smith’s game-winner Friday on a partial third-period breakaway when he snapped the puck short-side past Hellebuyck, who looked as wooden and waxy as Wayne Newton did when he hand-cranked the siren inside T-Mobile Arena.
“Things are going the right way,” Vegas defenceman Luca Sbisa said. “And when they don’t, we kind of find a way to make it happen. Same thing tonight. It’s kind of been like that all year.”
Anyone who was asked in the Knights’ dressing room defaulted to the fourth-game-is-hardest-to-win babble, even though teams leading 3-1 in a series eventually advance about nine times out of 10.
“I’m happy we get to play quick,” Knights’ centre Erik Haula said. “It’s an early game in Winnipeg; just get your rest and get ready. Obviously. . . sometimes your mind wanders to places. But we’re just trying to keep it cool. We have a great opportunity right now and we just have to take advantage of it.”
Asked if he could describe the opportunity before him, Schmidt, seldom lost for words, paused several seconds, then stammered: “Not really. Not really.” (Another five-second pause). “I mean it’s a . . . (four second pause). . . there’s still another game to win.”
Just one. And then the amazing Knights will try for four more. But to get there to the light, to be close enough for them to see their reflection in the Stanley Cup, takes just one more victory. An hour’s work. They’ve won 62 times this season. What’s one more?
“There’s a lot of special things that have happened,” Haula said. “There was a lot of adversity we’ve gone through, as a community and as a team. It’s a lot of fun for us and everyone who’s involved. Everyone is just enjoying the moment.”
“We haven’t accomplished anything yet,” Sbisa said.
Then we looked to see if his pants were ablaze.