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Why the Golden Knights were 2018’s greatest sports success story

Each year, the world of sports finds a way to amaze fans worldwide with dramatic championship moments, nail-biting finishes, tales of legendary individuals and the always-anticipated Cinderella stories.

That last point seems like an oxymoron, but the whole point of an upset is to deliver the unexpected.

As fans have come to realize, however, there will always be one or two unforeseen playoff runs or one-game miracles. As it turns out, 2018 was no exception. Several stories headlined the first half of the year.

The NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles kicked things off with an underdog-riddled run to their first Super Bowl championship in franchise history.

After the team lost star quarterback Carson Wentz to a torn ACL, everyone quickly wrote the Eagles off.

But a fighting spirit, a loyal fan base and the resurgence of a well-known backup by the name of Nick Foles led them to a thrilling championship run capped off by a 41-33 win over the defending champions, The New England Patriots, in Super Bowl LII.

Fast-forward a month later and March Madness came along. This is when the anticipated upset took place.

There will always be that one team that makes a triumphant run as the tournament moves along. It will be the reason why there is another year without a perfect bracket.

The team will leave fans in shock, awe, anger and tears. This year, this dubious role was played by the No. 11 seed, the Loyola Ramblers. Their miraculous run to the Final Four was highlighted by late-game heroics, dramatic team performances and divine motivation from 98-year-old Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt.

The Eagles and the Ramblers are, without question in many fans’ minds, two of the premier underdog stories of 2018. But as always, hockey seems to be forgotten.

In came the Vegas Golden Knights, an underdog story that trumped all others and put hockey back on the map of relevance. But even before the Golden Knights appeared on the NHL scene, the city of Las Vegas, believe it or not, has had a hockey presence for quite some time. This rich history led to what is unquestionably the greatest sports story of 2018.

On Sept. 27, 1991, more than 13,000 fans came to see the Los Angeles Kings defeat the New York Rangers 5–2 in an outdoor preseason game outside Caesars Palace.

Since 1997, the city has hosted the Frozen Fury, a preseason competition between the Kings and the Colorado Avalanche. Additionally, Las Vegas has hosted the annual NHL Awards since 2009. Despite hockey’s strong presence in the area, however, no professional sports teams were established.

This lack of a team changed on June 22, 2016, when Las Vegas’ bid for an expansion was approved by a unanimous vote.

Before the team was even established, 10,000 season tickets were sold immediately. Exactly five months later, the team name “Vegas Golden Knights” was revealed. Owner Bill Foley hired longtime Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee, who in turn hired Gerard Gallant as the team’s first head coach.

After that, the players were selected, headlined by three-time Stanley Cup champion goaltender Marc-André Fleury and All-Star forward James Neal. But even before the team’s inaugural season got underway, the Golden Knights were mired with low expectations and tragic adversity.

The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook gave the Golden Knights 500-1 odds to win the Stanley Cup, the worst odds of any team. Not surprisingly, the Golden Knights were also projected to have the worst record in the regular season.

Things took a turn for the worst, as on Oct. 1, just five days before the Golden Knights were to debut in the regular season, a tragic mass shooting took place at the Route 91 Harvest music festival on the Las Vegas Strip, leaving 58 people dead and 851 injured. A wounded and grieving community looked to their first professional sports team for help.

Soon, tragedy became unity, which then became glory, which ended in immortality. This is where the greatest sports story of 2018 officially began.

The Golden Knights officially made their NHL debut in Dallas, where they took down the Dallas Stars 2-1. With that, the Golden Knights welcomed themselves into the league.

Four nights later, on Oct. 10, the team played its first regular-season home game.

This was more than just a hockey game, however. The city was still feeling the effects of the tragic shooting nine days prior. The Golden Knights and the Strip’s T-Mobile Arena made sure to dedicate the team’s first home game to the fans and those affected by the tragedy.

Defenseman and Las Vegas resident Deryk Engelland delivered a moving speech during pregame ceremonies. The names of the people who lost their lives were displayed on the ice. The number 58 was retired by the team to honor the 58 casualties.

To top it all off, the boards were covered with one unifying message: #VegasStrong. That message became the team’s rally cry the entire season. The Golden Knights won their inaugural home game against the Arizona Coyotes 5-2. The team was off to a 3-0-0 start, but people still wrote it off. There was no possible way Vegas could keep this winning streak up. But the team did just that and then some.

The Golden Knights won eight of their first nine games, catching hockey fans everywhere by surprise.

They kept up their consistency with big wins and new faces making their statements. Goaltending injuries started to pile up. Fleury suffered a concussion, followed by backups Malcolm Subban and Oscar Dansk suffering lower-body injuries. The team was down to its fourth-string goaltender Maxime Lagacé. It didn’t matter, however, as the Golden Knights continued to win. They truly were Vegas strong.

The Golden Knights kept smashing records and beating every team in their sight. Visiting teams had no chance of coming out of Vegas with two points. The so-called Vegas flu superstition seemed to be on every visiting team’s mind. Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock had his team stay in a suburb 10 minutes away from downtown Las Vegas to avoid, well, Vegas.

It didn’t work. Columbus Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella and his team arrived the morning of their game in Vegas as an alternative strategy.

That didn’t work either. Other teams might have also tried to deal with Vegas temptation in different ways, but if they did, they kept these methods private. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Forget the so-called Vegas flu! Sin City and the rest of the NHL had a severe case of Knight Fever.

On Feb. 1, the Golden Knights broke the record for most wins by an expansion team in its inaugural season with their 34th victory. On Feb. 21, they broke the record for most points by an expansion team in its inaugural season with their 84th point. Then, on March 26, the Golden Knights became the first team to clinch a Stanley Cup playoffs berth in its inaugural season since the Edmonton Oilers and Hartford Whalers in 1979-1980. On March 31, with a 3-2 victory over the San Jose Sharks, the Golden Knights became the first modern-era expansion team from any of the four major league sports and the first NHL team since the 1926-1927 New York Rangers to win their division in their inaugural season.

This excludes the 1967-1968 Philadelphia Flyers, as all teams in the West Division that year were expansion teams. The Golden Knights finished the season with 51 wins, 109 points, a Pacific Division title, and a fan base that was committed to them. The team has no official captain, but it has six alternate captains: Engelland, Neal, David Perron, Luca Sbisa, Reilly Smith and Pierre-Édouard Bellemare.

The Golden Knights’ story didn’t stop after 82 regular-season games; their postseason run made this whole story much sweeter.

The Vegas team’s first test was against the Los Angeles Kings, a team that won two Stanley Cups in the past six years.

The veteran presence and championship pedigree should have proven to be a challenge for Vegas.

But these are the Vegas Golden Knights, and they seemed to defy every rational and historical trend that got in their way. They swept the Kings, even though they won all four games by just one goal. It took stellar goaltending from Fleury, who recorded two shutouts in the four games, and overtime heroics in Game 2 by Erik Haula to pull it off. Wins are wins, however, and the Golden Knights were off to the
next round.

In the second matchup, the Golden Knights met the Sharks once again, who proved to be much tougher foes than their Southern California counterparts.

The teams split the first four games, with each team recording one shutout victory and one 4-3 overtime win. But Vegas stepped on the gas pedal and took home Game 5 and Game 6 to punch its ticket to the Western Conference finals. Fleury recorded his fourth shutout of the playoffs in the Golden Knights’ 3-0 series-clinching victory in Game 6.

The Golden Knights’ next matchup featured an up-and-coming Winnipeg Jets squad that turned into one of the league’s elite. The Jets just came off a seven-game series win against the league’s best team, the Nashville Predators. In the Vegas-Winnipeg series, the Jets proved to be very tough in Game 1, as they dominated the Golden Knights from start to finish in a 4-2 victory. It looked as though the Golden Knights finally met their match. This is the team that was going to write the final chapter of Vegas’ historic season. After all, the Jets were Canada’s last hope for a Stanley Cup, something the nation has not seen one of its teams win since 1993, in the Montreal Canadiens’ 24th Stanley Cup championship. But Vegas did not care for Canada’s yearning and desperation. Their story was not finished. The team took Game 2 with a score of 3-1, triumphed at home in Game 3 and Game 4 by scores of 4-2 and 3-2, respectively, and clinched the series win in Game 5 with a nail-biting 2-1 victory. The Golden Knights were on their way to the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Golden Knights were the first expansion team since the 1967-1968 St. Louis Blues to play in the Stanley Cup Finals during their inaugural season. But that team was in a division with the other five expansion teams, which meant that one of them was guaranteed a spot in the Finals.

The Golden Knights were among 31 teams, and it took them just one season to get this far. Seven teams have not made the finals in the 21st century and four teams have still not made the finals in their franchise history. But here were the Vegas Golden Knights, surviving the first three rounds and being one of two teams that received the privilege to play for NHL’s ultimate prize.

The other team with such a privilege was none other than the Capitals. Washington surprised everyone with its triumphant run to the finals, finally beating out the Pittsburgh Penguins and getting past the East’s best Tampa Bay Lightning in the process.

The 2018 Stanley Cup Finals series was a series of two underdogs, though one had to come out on top.

The Golden Knights took Game 1 by a score of 6-4 after making a furious rally from a 4-3 deficit. It looked like they were well on their way to achieving hockey immortality.

But in Game 2, everything changed. Down 3-2, Vegas’ Alex Tuch appeared to have a wide open goal with less than three minutes to go in regulation. His one-timer was right on the tape, only to be miraculously stopped by the sprawling body and stick of Caps’ netminder Braden Holtby. This would be known as “The Save,” which helped preserve a 3-2 Washington victory to even the series. But it was also a momentum swinger.

Washington took the next two games at home by scores of 3-1 and 6-2, respectively, and headed back to Vegas with a 3-1 series lead. The Golden Knights had not lost four consecutive games at any point in their season. They needed to pull off the mother of all comebacks. Unfortunately, any chance of that happening abruptly ended with a heartbreaking 4-3 loss in Game 5, which clinched the first Stanley Cup for the Capitals in their 44-year history.

As Washington celebrated, Vegas players and fans looked on in agony and defeat. The clock struck midnight on their magical season. But no Vegas player or fan should feel any bit of shame. In fact, the team deserves to be praised for what it has achieved given the surrounding circumstances.

Much skepticism arose concerning Commissioner Gary Bettman’s mission to expand the NHL to unorthodox markets. Las Vegas is not the first city that comes to mind for a hockey franchise. But the Golden Knights were fueled by immediate success, stable ownership and a dedicated fan base. This is especially important now, since the NFL’s Oakland Raiders are set to relocate to Las Vegas within the next few years.

Given that football is more popular than hockey across America, the Golden Knights’ success can give them supremacy in a city that is incredibly passionate and influential when it comes to sports. After all, winning is everything.

The Golden Knights’ story overrides any other great sports stories in 2018, even the Eagles and Loyola-Chicago. The Eagles did not just get to the top seed in the NFC because of Wentz. Their defense played a part in that, as well.

Sure, Wentz was the primary reason why the Eagles were so successful and not having him play under center had many experts questioning their capability as a team to win it all. But the team as a whole was good enough to contend, and it proved itself in the Super Bowl. As for the Ramblers, their run to the Final Four was magical and unpredictable. But Loyola, believe it or not, won a national championship back in 1964.

Additionally, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament will always have that one team that makes a deep run. It’s something that has become a mainstay in the “Big Dance.”

The Golden Knights were in their inaugural season, had extremely low expectations and broke a countless amount of records. They took down some of the league’s best and put hockey back on the map of relevancy.

From the point of the Golden Knights’ establishment, there was a chip on the team’s shoulder. The tragic shooting in the beginning of October became a source of unification and motivation. The Golden Knights rallied around their city and their loyal fans.

The beat never stopped, and they propelled their way to the Stanley Cup Finals. The Golden Knights of Las Vegas were unquestionably the greatest sports story of 2018, with no other team even coming close to them.

June 27, 2018

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Felix Malamud


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