Column: Viva Las Vegas! Knights a win from Stanley Cup Final

LAS VEGAS — Marc-Andre Fleury sat shirtless in front of his locker, staring blankly, his exhausted gaze fixed nowhere. Pads still strapped to his legs after another spectacular night’s work, the Vegas Golden Knights goalie looked as if he were trying to gather his thoughts, trying somehow to make sense of it all.

The rest of the hockey world is, too, as the newly minted Knights play Sunday with the most improbable prize of all at stake — a chance to go to the Stanley Cup Final.

The story is well known by now, or at least it should be. But the fantasy has never been so close to reality as it is now, with the Knights up 3-1 going into Sunday’s game against the Jets in Winnipeg.

An expansion team born last October on the heels of the Las Vegas massacre that took 58 lives is on the brink of winning it all, confounding both hockey experts and expert bookies alike.

Even the guys on the other team are shaking their heads at what the hockey gods wrought.

“You know it’s just the stars are just aligning for them,” Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck said. “But it’s not going to stay that way.”

Maybe not, partly because hockey is a notoriously fickle game. But in this gambling town the odds are suddenly in the house’s favor.

With the hope they don’t have to play at home again until the Stanley Cup Final, the Knights trotted out some old Vegas mojo Friday night with Wayne Newton and the Blue Man Group making appearances to root the team on. The Backstreet Boys were there and rapper Lil Jon took the microphone to lead the cheers just before Reilly Smith punched in the go-ahead goal in the third period.

And, of course, this being Las Vegas the guy doing the anthems was a singing gondolier whose day job is serenading tourists in the faux canals of Venice just across the street.

There’s nothing fake about this team now one win from one of most improbable runs ever. Once 500-1 longshots to win the Stanley Cup in their first year, the Knights are now favored — at least in the sports books — to win it all.

It’s enough to make even Bark-Andre Furry — the lovable canine and goalie namesake who is now the unofficial team mascot — to sit up and take notice.

“It’s nice, but the last one is always the toughest to get,” Fleury said. “I think we have to keep the same mind set and just go and take it one game at a time and not think too far ahead and be ready to play that next game because they are going to be coming hard.”

That mentality has worked well for a team that began the season as an afterthought, a collection of unwanted players from other teams thrown together in hopes of winning a respectable number of games in their first year. The coach himself, Gerard Gallant, had been unceremoniously fired from the Florida Panthers, left on the side of a road with his luggage as the team bus headed down the road.

It’s been a remarkable run for a team that likes to call itself the Golden Misfits. They’ve struck gold in Las Vegas, a town that loves winners and has embraced its first major pro sports team.

Just how remarkable? Well, consider that while the Knights are five wins from bringing home the Stanley Cup in their first year, the Toronto Maple Leafs — a member of the NHL’s exclusive Original Six club — haven’t won one in the last 51 years.

On Friday, the Knights used the same formula — speed and stellar goaltending — that has worked for them all year to beat the Jets 3-1 and take a commanding advantage in the Western Conference finals. It was the third straight win for the Knights, who have no illusion on how tough getting win No. 4 will be.

“No team is going to go out quietly this time of the year,” Gallant said.

Still, everything seems to be aligning in the Knights’ favor. They’re playing hard, yes, but they’re also getting the kind of bounces and breaks that are usually the difference in a series between two evenly matched teams.

That continued in Game 4 as Dustin Byfuglien whiffed on an attempt near the blue line and Smith scooped up the loose puck and raced down the ice to score the winner over the shoulder of Hellebuyck with 6:58 left.

Soon the Knights were celebrating, and Elvis was singing. Viva Las Vegas blared through the arena, and the crowd of 18,697 filed out happily into the warm desert night.

One win away for a team no one dares bet against.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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