Stronger, matured Golden Knights earn second shot at Stanley Cup

William Karlsson scored two goals and Adin Hill made 23 saves as the Vegas Golden Knights advanced to the Stanley Cup Final with a 6-0 blowout of the Dallas Stars in Game 6.

The Vegas Golden Knights are misfits no more. Actually, they’re perfectly suited to winning a Stanley Cup.

After cuffing aside the Dallas Stars 6-0 Monday to win the Western Conference title in six games, the big, brawny, deep Knights look more like Godzilla than the Cinderella team of expansion-draft “misfits” that somehow made it to the Stanley Cup Final in 2018 in the franchise’s first National Hockey League season.

Even using their fourth-string goalie in Adin Hill, who had a 23-save shutout in Game 6, and with their best player, Jack Eichel, goal-less in the conference final, the Golden Knights were just too much for the Stars and overwhelmed them with speed, power and scoring depth in the deciding game.

Only six original misfits remain from Vegas’ inaugural roster, but three of those players scored on Monday. William Karlsson had two goals and Jonathan Marchessault one, but the biggest catalyst was wrecking-ball winger William Carrier and his fourth-line mates.

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Carrier opened the scoring at 3:41 and beautifully set up linemate Keegan Kolesar on a give-and-go that made it 3-0 for Vegas at 14 minutes. Dallas was checking air on both goals. Karlsson scored on a power-play rebound at 10:25.

The Stars were trying to become the first team in NHL history to advance to the Stanley Cup after trailing 3-0 in games in a conference final, but they had no hope of coming back from 3-0 on Monday.

The Golden Knights open the Stanley Cup Final at home Saturday against the Florida Panthers.

“We’ve been kind of around it for a while here, trying to get there,” Carrier said afterward. “I think our group’s a little more mature than the first year and I think we’re going to embrace the opportunity right here.”

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“It means a lot to do it with these guys,” Eichel, rescued from purgatory in Buffalo with a blockbuster trade to Vegas last season, told reporters of his first Stanley Cup playoff experience. “It’s been an awesome year. I’ve said it a lot, but it’s a lot of fun coming to the rink and being with them every day. We keep it light. We know when to buckle down and play hockey, and I’m just really proud to be a part of this organization. It’s been a great journey so far.”

The only thing stronger than the team on the ice is the organization’s feverish commitment to winning, and Vegas management’s willingness to accept huge risks and costs to pursue that end.

The Knights’ NHL journey began in 2017, when they galvanized a community fractured by a horrific mass shooting that killed 60 people at a music festival just off the Las Vegas Strip. Their team’s dreamlike trip to the Stanley Cup final helped heal the city. But that season, the team’s success was neither a fluke nor a one-off. It was merely a starting point.

Original general manager George McPhee, who became president of hockey operations in 2019 when he promoted Kelly McCrimmon to GM to keep his top assistant from leaving Las Vegas, traded for Mark Stone in the Knights’ second season.

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In Year 3, the Knights acquired defenceman Alec Martinez and goalie Robin Lehner, which eventually led to the trade of fan-darling Marc-Andre Fleury, the original face of the franchise. For Year 4, McPhee and McCrimmon signed free-agent defenceman Alex Pietrangelo to a massive $61.6-million contract, which meant jettisoning Nate Schmidt, another fan favourite.

Last season, another popular original player in Alex Tuch was sacrificed with other prime assets to acquire Eichel from the Sabres, giving McCrimmon the elite, No. 1 centre he was adamant he needed to go with the elite No. 1 defenceman in Pietrangelo. To be salary-cap compliant this season, McCrimmon had to give away first-line finisher Max Pacioretty.

Besides Karlsson, Marchessault and Carrier, the other remaining original Knights are Reilly Smith, Brayden McNabb and Shea Theodore.

There is only one Vegas draft pick in the Knights’ current lineup, and he is sixth defenceman Nic Hague. Vegas had three first-round picks in its first draft — all three prospects were traded — and has had only three first-rounders since.

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McPhee and McCrimmon never tried building a team for the future. They started six years ago with a surprisingly good one, and have been pushing ever since to make it even better so the Knights can win a Stanley Cup. 

The franchise’s 83 playoff games (and 50 playoff wins) over six seasons are second only to the 98 played by the Tampa Bay Lightning, which went to the last three finals. In the regular season, only the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche have a better record in the Western Conference (by two wins) since the Golden Knights joined the NHL.

In just six years, Vegas has done everything but win a Cup.

Starting Saturday against the Panthers, who stormed to the Eastern Conference title on the shoulders of Matthew Tkachuk and Sergei Bobrovsky and a 6-0 overtime record, the Golden Knights will get their second chance. 

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“I think the first year was just kind of a whirlwind,” Karlsson told reporters in Dallas. “You know, you’ve never been there before. Everything was just kind of flowing and, I don’t know, maybe you took it for granted a little bit back then. Now … five, six years later, there’s been ups and downs and you realize this opportunity doesn’t come around too often. I think maybe that’s the biggest difference.”

The Knights will play with a stronger, deeper, more experienced lineup than the expansion misfits who lost the Stanley Cup in five games to the Washington Capitals in 2018.

“They’re playing well, right?” Carrier said of the Panthers. “They’re kind of playing the way we want to play, too. They’re physical, they get in on the forecheck hard, they’re getting those gritty goals and they’re finding ways to win games.”

Unlike the Panthers, the Knights didn’t touch the trophy they were presented for winning their conference. It’s not the one they’ve set out to win each season since their first one.

“Exciting times,” Stone said. “But we still want four more.”


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