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How the Golden Knights Won Vegas Over

Image: Houston Chronicle

My fellow Golden Knight fans, it happened. Vegas finally won their first Stanley Cup, disposing of the Florida Panthers like a rat, 4-1. After years of falling short, your Vegas Golden Knights have finally hoisted Lord Stanley. Led by cooler heads, a team mentality, and strong leadership, their dream was realized this past Tuesday.

Of course, it wasn’t an easy path. When you’re faced with behemoths named Jason Robertson, Connor McDavid, and Leon Draisaitl, you’re bound to have obstacles. However, that wasn’t an issue for the Knights, who proceeded without a hitch.

During their Stanley Cup journey, the Knights became a beloved figure in Las Vegas. Here’s how the Golden Knights quickly became a staple in Sin City, from rallying the city from a terrible tragedy to rebounding from missing the playoffs.

How It All Started

The Vegas Golden Knights started their NHL tenure in 2017. Expectations were low for the expansion team: there was only one star on the team (Marc-Andre Fleury) and new teams have an extensive track record of being bad their first year. Even critics were saying that Fleury was past his prime, adding fuel to the fire of possible failure.

What made this even more baffling was owner Bill Foley’s proclamation. He promised the Golden Knights would make the playoffs in three years and win the Stanley Cup in six. That statement was a huge gamble, especially for an expansion team. But hey, that’s what Vegas is known for, right?

Many people were baffled by a hockey team in the desert to start. With the failure of the Arizona Coyotes, how could the Golden Knights be successful? Opposing fans would easily invade T-Mobile Arena on a regular basis, or that’s what everyone thought, at least. All this looked like a recipe for disaster.

Tragedy Strikes

Then, October 1st happened. It was a tragic event where Stephen Maddock opened fire on attendees at the Route 91 Harvest music festival. 60 people were murdered in the mass shooting and the aftermath shook the community. It was a gruesome event that rattled Las Vegas to its core, leaving everyone in fear.

But something strange happened after that. The Vegas Golden Knights went on a historic run. They finished with a record of 51-24-7, leaving them atop the Pacific Division. The surprising run left NHL experts baffled. How were the Golden Knights doing this?

Nobody expected William Karlsson to score 43 goals in 2017-2018. Fleury continuing his dominance after a subpar 2016-2017 season with Pittsburgh was a surprise, too. Overall, nobody expected this group of Misfits to take the NHL by storm.

Yet, that’s what they were. They were forgotten pieces that the other 30 teams didn’t want. Who wants the table scraps when they want to eat the whole meal? Nobody. That’s why everyone was rooting for the Golden Knights. It’s the classic tale of the underdog thriving.

Not only was it a terrific story, but it united the Las Vegas community. Finally, locals had a professional sports team to root for. Hockey meant something, especially after a terrible tragedy. Hockey was family in Sin City and it brought everyone together.

Silent Golden Knight

Little did everyone know their run would continue into the playoffs. But that’s what happened. Vegas swept the Los Angeles Kings into a rebuild. The Golden Knights stymied the San Jose Sharks behind Fleury’s dominance. Then, they finished off the Winnipeg Jets to win the Western Conference.

With this, Vegas was four games away from a fairy tale ending. No other team in the four major sports, let alone the NHL, has won the title in their first year. The only obstacle left? Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals.

That’s where the feelgood story would end, with Washington finishing off the Knights, 4-1. Ovechkin and company proved to be too much, with an array of scorers and Braden Holtby‘s breathtaking goaltending doing the job. Still, Las Vegas was fully on board with Golden Knights hockey. The sense of family was there, brought on by the team’s unity.

After that, it was failure after failure for the Golden Knights. In 2019, they blew a 3-1 lead to the San Jose Sharks, which included a Game 7 collapse. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic happened the next season. It ended with Vegas being handled by the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference Finals. People were still invested in Golden Knights hockey, though.

After that? Vegas was upset by Carey Price and the upstart Montreal Canadiens. Nobody expected Montreal to defeat the mighty Golden Knights in 2020-2021, nor did anyone expect Cole Caufield to be a Canadian folk hero. But Las Vegas? Still invested.

Failure is the Best Teacher

The 2021-2022 season was worse: Vegas missed the playoffs for the first time in their franchise history. That left an array of questions from the Vegas populace: Was this the end of the current tenure of the Golden Knights? Would fans lose interest after a playoff failure? How do you recover from missing the postseason?

First, you have to make a tough decision with your head coach. Do you keep a guy who’s been successful in Pete DeBoer? For Kelly McCrimmon, that was an easy decision. Out went DeBoer and in came former Boston Bruins coach, Bruce Cassidy.

Cassidy has been a boon for Vegas, unleashing a scary forecheck and making Vegas strong in even strength. Unlike his predecessors, Cassidy also wasn’t afraid to make the necessary lineup changes. If he needed a mismatch, he’d change up his lines without question. That was also true if a player was underachieving; out goes the underperformer (looking at you, Jake Leschyshyn).

There was also acquiring Jack Eichel that shook the NHL the season before. Vegas didn’t have a true franchise center like Edmonton and Colorado, leaving them vulnerable on the attack. Enter the former No. 2 overall pick, who proved to be a solid addition to the Golden Knights.

Let’s not forget about Logan Thompson, who was supposed to be a backup goalie for Robin Lehner. After Lehner was out with a season-ending hip injury, the young goalie stepped in and became an All-Star. Throw in Ivan Barbashev and you have a Stanley Cup team.

The Result?

The ensuing result was a spectacular postseason run for the Golden Knights. They performed a gentleman’s sweep of the Winnipeg Jets, easily disposing of Connor Hellebuyck and company. Then, McDavid and Draisaitl were sent packing. After that, those pesky Stars made things interesting before bowing out.

Then, Matthew Tkachuk and the Florida Panthers came into town for the Stanley Cup. They flung their rats and did what they could to torment the Golden Knights. However, Vegas was the better team, neutralizing Florida’s special teams and making Sergei Bobrovsky look average.

Yes, Las Vegas. This is the year. After the tragic events on October 1st, 2017, Sin City has overcome plenty of adversity. Now, they hoist the Cup and have galvanized Vegas. As for Bill Foley’s promise? It’s been fulfilled. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Why the Golden Knights Have Worked

The one constant through all this is Foley himself. He established a culture where he prioritized playing at the highest level every night. Yes, there were some tough decisions to be made along the way, such as trading Fleury to Chicago. But these same tough decisions led to the Golden Knights hoisting Lord Stanley.

The Golden Knights have a grip on the community in a way that the Raiders could never achieve despite their past successes and passionate fan base. The same thing can be said for the A’s when they eventually move to Sin City, especially since John Fisher doesn’t have the same moxie that Foley has. The Knights are homegrown and have excellent leadership at the top.

Foley mentioned in his promise that it wasn’t a projection, but a standard. It’s the same standard that the Miami Heat has with “Heat Culture” or the St. Louis Cardinals and the “Cardinal Way.” Whatever the case, it seems that Foley’s standard has become what the NHL and Las Vegas needed.

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