Sports

Vegas Golden Knights win Stanley Cup in only their sixth season (published in 2023)

Born of fear, tragedy and ultimately triumph, the Vegas Golden Knights won their first Stanley Cup in just their sixth season by defeating the Florida Panthers 9-3 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Tuesday.

The Knights, the top seed in the Western Conference, used a quick, sharp elbow attack to overwhelm the Panthers, the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, in five games. The Knights made their second appearance in the finals, as did the Panthers.

But while the Panthers came within one round of a championship for the first time since 1996, the Knights made the second-fastest trip to a Stanley Cup victory of any team in the expansion era that began in 1967, behind only the Edmonton Oilers , who won the cup in their fifth season in the competition. (The Oilers played seven seasons in the World Hockey Association before joining the NHL)

“We’ve been waiting a long time for that moment to come back and we wanted to make sure we capitalized on it,” said Vegas winger Jonathan Marchessault, who was selected by the Panthers in the expansion draft and was one of the original “misfits” of Vegas’ inaugural season. “This team has been unbelievable from the beginning.”

After captain Mark Stone lifted the Cup after the game, he passed it to Reilly Smith, another first-season player who also came from the Panthers. He passed it to Marchessault, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs.

After a shaky start to Game 5, the Golden Knights opened the scoring about 12 minutes into the first period. After Vegas goalie Adin Hill stopped Florida center Aleksander Barkov, Stone scored an unassisted short-handed goal. Vegas scored again less than two minutes later.

In the second period, Vegas scored four times in less than 10 minutes, including a second goal by Stone, to build an insurmountable lead. The Panthers were without their leading scorer, Matthew Tkachuk, who was injured in Game 4. But Vegas was clearly the hungrier team.

Fueled by a raucous in-house DJ, cheerleaders and an over-the-top light show, the Knights fans prepared for a wild party in the third period that few could have imagined six years ago.

The annals of the NHL are littered with failed franchises. Expansion clubs. Teams that moved to new markets. Teams that moved again. Remember the Cleveland Barons? The Kansas City Scouts? The Minnesota North Stars?

It’s no wonder that critics were skeptical when commissioner Gary Bettman held a press conference at a Las Vegas hotel in 2016 to announce that the city would become home to the Golden Knights, the league’s 31st team. With the temperature outside peaking at 108 degreesBettman answered questions about the viability of a professional hockey team in a desert city where many residents are retired or work evening service jobs.

A host of minor league hockey teams — including the Gamblers, the Outlaws, the Aces, the Thunder and the Ice Dice — have struggled in Las Vegas. The Coyotes, who moved from Winnipeg to Arizona for the 1996-97 season, were in such dire financial straits that the NHL had to acquire the team at some point. Maybe hockey wasn’t meant to be played in the desert.

Still, Bettman pointed to the city’s growing population and its reputation for entertainment.

“We think this is an extremely exciting opportunity, not only for Las Vegas, but for the league,” he said.

There were also questions about adding a franchise in a city known for legal sports betting, something sports leagues including the NHL had long avoided. Bettman said hockey betting wasn’t as popular as football, so the threat of players messing up a game was minimal.

“We have no concerns about the integrity of our game,” Bettman said.

As it turned out, Bettman should have bet money on the team before it took the ice for the first time. The Knights seemingly overcame every obstacle they faced in their first season. They sold more than 14,000 season tickets before the team even had a name. The team moved to the T-Mobile Arena, which was already open on the Strip.

But after the team’s final preseason game, a gunman at the Mandalay Bay hotel, about a mile south of the arena, opened fire at a nearby concert, killing 58 people and wounding hundreds of others. The team’s players, who were scheduled to appear at a public meeting the next day, became a galvanizing force in the city. She blown away across the community, thanking police officers, donating blood, and raising tens of thousands of dollars to help victims, their families, and medical workers.

Their response endeared them to the city’s stunned and grieving residents. And remarkably, the Knights went on an epic run. Led by three-time Stanley Cup champion Marc-Andre Fleury in goal, the team began the season outshot 500-to-1 to win the Stanley Cup. Still, they compiled 109 points and a .622 winning percentage in the regular season, both league records for a team in its first season by wide margins. They swept through the first three rounds of the playoffs, defeating the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and Winnipeg Jets, and won Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Washington Capitals. The team lost the next four games and the series, but had made its mark like no other.

“The team wrapped itself around the city, and the city wrapped itself around the team,” longtime Las Vegas resident Brad Kreel told me before the team’s final game that season.

The WNBA’s Aces arrived from San Antonio in 2018, the Raiders arrived from Oakland, California, a few years later, and now the Athletics are also trying to find a stadium in the city, confirming the NHL’s suspicion that the city, despite being the 40th largest media market in the United States, it could support major sports teams.

However, the Knights are now permanent fixtures. They made it to the play-offs five of their six seasonsand, despite the odds, have shown the sports world that Las Vegas can support a professional sports team and that team can be successful.

“It’s the best feeling in the world,” Vegas center Jack Eichel said. “It’s a very special organization and I feel blessed to be a part of it. I really started to enjoy coming back to the rink.”

Marchessault, asked what kind of party Las Vegas had in store, said with a grin, “I don’t know. Probably a big one.”

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