LAS VEGAS – The corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Tropicana Avenue is dominated by the Statue of Liberty, her incongruous existence in the Sonoran Desert made only slightly less surreal by the Empire State and Chrysler buildings behind her, part of the spectacularly kitschy New York-New York Hotel and Casino.
Above all the tourists and Elvises – or are they Elvi? – on Friday, the replica Lady Liberty wore a giant Vegas Golden Knights’ jersey.
Considering the current state of the America, the statue’s famous inscribed offer to "give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" is cruelly ironic. Yet it perfectly suits the hockey team that plays in the big arena behind the New York-New York.
The Golden Knights accepted the tired and poor, the unwanted and over-priced, the unappreciated and unaccomplished from the National Hockey League’s teeming shores in order to build their expansion team.
And they constructed a sporting version of the American Dream, imagining big, working hard and, above all else, believing in themselves when no one else would. They won 51 regular-season games to become, by far, the most successful first-year team in NHL history. In a desert.
Nothing seems impossible for the Knights because they’ve already done what seemed impossible.
Erik Haula, a 27-year-old former seventh-round draft pick who never had more than 15 goals in an NHL season until he scored 29 this year in Las Vegas, slipped a forehand under goalie Jonathan Quick at 15:23 of double overtime Friday as the Knights beat the Los Angeles Kings 2-1 to seize a 2-0 lead in their first-round playoff series.
This miraculous expansion team is now two wins away from advancing against the Kings, the two-time Stanley Cup winners who have been outplayed in both games so far. Put another way, the Golden Knights are 10 wins away from playing for the Stanley Cup.
Don’t scoff. Down the street from the Statue of Liberty is the Eiffel Tower and the great pyramid of Luxor. Anything is possible here. Anything is possible for the Knights.
James Neal, who actually played for the Stanley Cup last spring with the Nashville Predators before the Knights claimed him in the expansion draft, beautifully set up Haula’s winner in a game in which Vegas outshot Los Angeles 56-30.
Halfway through regulation time, the Kings were close to the Knights only on the scoreboard.
Vegas was outshooting Los Angeles 19-7, leading 1-0 and dominating territorially. On the rare instances the Kings possessed the puck in the offensive zone, their shots were one-and-done. All the longest shifts, the sustained pressure, seemed to be in the Los Angeles zone were the Kings struggled to match the Knights’ speed.
But from a faceoff in the Kings’ end, Golden Knights defenceman Brayden McNabb pinched down the boards, got his stick between the skates of former teammate Dustin Brown, and tripped the Los Angeles winger at 14:19 of the second period.
That power play was like a rescue mission for the Kings, who tied it 1-1 with the man-advantage at 15:55 when defenceman Paul Ladue’s long-range shot caromed off the pants of defenceman Deryk Engelland and past Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
In a game the Kings could have trailed by two or three goals, suddenly they were tied.
It was the first playoff goal surrendered by the Knights, who won Game 1 1-0 on Wednesday and took the lead in Game 2 when Alex Tuch reacted fastest to a lively rebound off the end boards after Jonathan Marchessault’s point shot missed the net but stranded Quick.
Quick, narrowly outplayed by Fleury on Wednesday, was brilliant in Game 2.
With superstar defenceman Drew Doughty suspended one game for his hit to the head Wednesday on William Carrier, and the Kings still missing No. 2 blue-liner Jake Muzzin with an undisclosed injury, the best L.A. defender was Quick.
He stopped 34 of 35 shots in regulation time and then the first 20 he faced in overtime, and several times had to make saves in bunches due to the Knights’ sustained pressure.
Game 3 of the best-of-seven first-round series is Sunday night in Los Angeles.
Back in December, after the Knights beat the Kings 3-2, Doughty declared: "There’s no way they’re going to be a better team than us by the end of the season."
But the Knights are a better team than the Kings at the end of the season.