The culture of winning has taken a bit of a vacation in Montreal over the years, though it is one that failing hands have passed the torch along through 103 seasons in the National Hockey League. Versus The Misfits — the guys nobody wanted — who, in four short seasons, have built one of the strongest winning cultures in today’s NHL.
What started with an expansion draft, the horrific mass shooting through which the Golden Knights organization helped the city to cope, and a storybook Stanley Cup run in their first-ever season, has leveled into a Vegas team that has carefully built its culture while becoming one of the favourite destinations for an NHL player to play.
“A lot from that first year still lingers,” said Brayden McNabb, the Davidson, Sask. defenceman who was scooped off the Los Angeles Kings roster in that 2017 expansion draft. “The city itself, the fans are just as crazy and awesome as ever. The experience from that run goes a long ways for the guys who were there.
“The team has changed quite a bit,” he added, “but they’ve brought in good character guys, good leaders, and we’ve gotten better for that.”
Imagine if you dropped in from Mars, landed at the T-Mobile Arena for Game 2, and you were told that the team that’s been around for over a century is trying to catch up to the four-year-old team when it comes to expectations.
Sure, Montreal wants to win. They aim to win — so does everyone else.
But Vegas expects to win, for one simple reason: That’s all they’ve ever done.
Sure, they haven’t been around long enough to experience the inevitable cycles that every professional sports team must endure. Somehow, they started at the top and remain there today.
Montreal, of course, has been through that spin cycle copiously since joining back in 1917. While Vegas has been in three of the past four NHL Final Fours, you have to go back seven seasons since the Canadiens made it this far. It’s the third trip for the Habs in the past 27 years — stretching back to their last Stanley Cup victory in 1993.
The only cycle the Golden Knights have lived through is a bit of player turnover. That, and watching William Karlsson go from a 43-goal expansion season, down to 14 goals in 56 games this season, and then right back up to the top of their scoring charts in the playoffs with 4-8-12 in 14 games.
“It’s not surprising to anyone in our room that it’s William Karlsson,” said head coach Peter DeBoer. “I think you could throw probably six names in that hat of guys that you would say, ‘He’s leading our team in scoring? Not surprised.' That’s the depth of our group — the fact we don’t have that one guy who is going to put up two points a game.
“Mark Stone is as close to that guy as we have, but then we have a lot of guys who are just really good players,” DeBoer said. “Karly is not doing anything different than what he’s done every day here, and that’s the beauty of him. His consistency.”
The moves that GM Kelly McCrimmon has made, and George McPhee before him, have been generally genius-grade. That extends to nabbing goalie Marc-Andre Fleury in that expansion draft, a goalie the Pittsburgh Penguins thought they had replaced with Matt Murray.
Today Murray is trying to prove he can be the goalie who can lead the Ottawa Senators out of the wilderness, while Fleury is going mask-to-mask with a no-doubt Hall of Famer in Carey Price, outduelling him in Game 1.
“Two great goalies,” Karlsson marvelled on the off-day Tuesday, his Golden Knights leading the series one game to none. “I’ve watched Price on TV and he’s had some huge games for Montreal. A joy to watch. And of course I’ve had a front row seats for Fleury these past couple of years.
“It’s good to see, two great goalies who bring a lot of show to The Show.”
The Habs have placed a few goalies in the Hall over the years. As it turns out, Fleury — the NHL’s active leader in playoff wins (89) and games played (158); recently moving past Grant Fuhr and into fourth spot on the NHL’s list of all-time playoff guardians behind Patrick Roy (247 games played), Martin Brodeur (205) and Ed Belfour 161) — will likely join him there.
The Price/Fleury matchup is one that DeBoer looks to play down.
“We don’t look at it as Flower against Price. It’s their group against our group,” he said. “There are so many other factors that go into these games, on top of goaltending. I’m anticipating both guys are going to be great every night, and this is going to get decided by other factors.”
Other factors like winning tradition and culture.
Who knew, the four-year-old would be the betting favourite on those intangibles as well?