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Conference Final

Golden Knights earn praise from Lightning, Capitals

Cooper, Trotz laud historic run to Stanley Cup Final

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

WASHINGTON -- The Vegas Golden Knights were the talk of the morning in the Eastern Conference Final on Monday.

"They're a wonderful story," Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.

The Golden Knights became the first team to reach the Stanley Cup Final in its inaugural season since the St. Louis Blues in 1968 by defeating the Winnipeg Jets in five games in the Western Conference Final. 

The Blues got there by winning the all-expansion West Division. The Golden Knights got there by finishing first in the Pacific Division, which included seven pre-existing teams, and going 12-3 in the first three rounds of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Los Angeles Kings (4-0), San Jose Sharks (4-2) and Jets (4-1).

 

[RELATED: Complete Jets vs. Golden Knights series coverage]

 

The Lightning, who were an expansion team in 1992-93, will advance to their third Stanley Cup Final with a win in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Washington Capitals at Capital One Arena (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN1, TVAS). 

Tampa Bay leads the best-of-7 series 3-2.

But even with Game 6 looming, the Golden Knights and their historic success were a dominant storyline. 

Cooper praised Vegas owner Bill Foley, general manager George McPhee and coach Gerard Gallant.

"They were given a framework to work with," Cooper said. "They could have screwed it up or they could've done really well, and they chose to do really well. They played within the rules that were given to them, and this is what you get. It's a success story, is what it is. It's not a Cinderella story."

Video: Golden Knights defeat Jets in five, head to Cup Final

Cooper has a soft spot for McPhee, who spoke with him for the Capitals' coaching vacancy in 2012 and had him as one of the top candidates for the job that eventually went to Adam Oates.

"He's at the top of the pyramid for me," Cooper said of McPhee. "I was extremely fortunate to land with Steve Yzerman [in Tampa Bay], but when I was coming up the ranks and going through my first interview process, I met with him on numerous occasions. I was not the one brought in, nor should I have been at the time, but there was always something in me that said, 'Hey, if there was ever a situation I would definitely go work for that guy.' He's everything as advertised."

Capitals coach Barry Trotz has a special appreciation for what Vegas has done because he knows all about what it's like to start a franchise from scratch. He was the first coach of the Nashville Predators when they entered the NHL in 1998. 

The Predators finished with 28 wins and 63 points in 1998-99, their inaugural season. They didn't reach the playoffs until 2003-04, their sixth season. That's when the Lightning won their only Stanley Cup championship in what was their 12th season and third time in the playoffs.

"There's nothing tighter than that first-year group because there's no preconceived notion," Trotz said. "Leadership is not in place. Nobody knows where to live. All those things are galvanizing. Unfortunately, there was tragedy in Vegas, which probably galvanized them more. And they're deep. They're probably the most veteran team still playing in the playoffs. But they've done a fabulous job. They're a fabulous story."

Trotz also praised the NHL for creating rules for the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft that allowed Vegas to field a veteran team in its first season.

The existing 30 teams were allowed to protect either seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie, or eight skaters regardless of position and one goalie, from selection in the expansion draft. That left Vegas a large pool of players from which to choose. 

"Great job by the NHL coming with that format because the other way, it took 15 years to grow roots," Trotz said. "They have roots now."

The Golden Knights made good on many of their expansion draft selections, including goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (Pittsburgh Penguins), forwards James Neal (Predators), Jonathan Marchessault (Florida Panthers), William Karlsson (Columbus Blue Jackets) and David Perron (St. Louis Blues), and defensemen Deryk Engelland (Calgary Flames), Nate Schmidt (Capitals) and Brayden McNabb (Los Angeles Kings).

Vegas also acquired forwards Reilly Smith and Alex Tuch, and defenseman Shea Theodore, in trades at the expansion draft.

"They did their homework on the guys they took," Cooper said. "What they did a really good job of is they built their team for today's NHL. So do they have that quote-unquote superstar? I guess not yet, because they haven't been around long enough, but they've got a [heck] of a lot of good hockey players and they've got a coach that's had them all going the same direction."

***

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