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Golden Knights continue unlikely magic, reach Western Conference Final

Expansion team finds making more history is 'a bit crazy'

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

SAN JOSE -- The Vegas Golden Knights had made the Western Conference Final in their inaugural season, defeating the San Jose Sharks 3-0 on Sunday and winning the second-round series 4-2.

 

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

 

A reporter asked goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury about how everything had come together, how they had great players like Fleury and center William Karlsson and forward Jonathan Marchessault.

Great players? 

Fleury smiled.

"I don't know if anybody would have said that in September, right?" Fleury said.

No one would have. It's tempting now to rewrite history and say the Golden Knights had more advantages than they did, that they were given all these great players and that this isn't completely, utterly, magically ridiculous.

But think back to training camp. Even though they had rules more favorable than to past teams in the NHL Expansion Draft, they acquired players deemed expendable by their former teams. Be honest. How good did you think they would be? Did you think they would make the Stanley Cup Playoffs, let alone win two rounds?

"Maybe a little bit of a long shot, you know?" Fleury said. "But here we are."

Video: Vegas Golden Knights Advances to Conference Finals

Virtually none of these guys knew each other. When forward James Neal collected phone numbers, he made their group chat name the Golden Misfits. It was a joke, but it became their identity. Their wives and girlfriends even made T-shirts on their own.

They came together with their community after the mass shooting on the Strip on Oct. 1. They got off to an 8-1-0 start. Though they went 7-8-1 in their next 16 games, they took off just as people thought they were coming to earth, going 12-0-1 in their next 13. 

It snowballed from there. They finished the regular season 51-24-7 and won the Pacific Division with 109 points. They had 26 more points, 18 more wins, seven more home wins and two more road wins than any other NHL team ever had in its inaugural season.

"I think we've made ourselves a good team," Fleury said. "We had great chemistry right from the start. We kept improving throughout the season. I feel like we're using everybody in the lineup to get wins. That's what made us successful all season, and that's why we're still having success."

In the first round, the Golden Knights swept the Los Angeles Kings, whose core won the Cup in 2012 and 2014. Now they have defeated the Sharks, many of whom went to the Final in 2016.

"We have belief in our room that we can win," Neal said. "[It started with] training camp and our first game and continued on, and built something special throughout the year and built the confidence in each other and the belief that we could win. We continue to prove people wrong, I guess you can say. It's an exciting time for us, and we're grabbing ahold of it. Everyone's grabbing ahold of it and enjoying it and playing hard for each other."

It's incredible. Just incredible. Only two other NHL teams have won two playoff series in an inaugural season -- the 1917-18 Toronto Arenas and the 1967-68 St. Louis Blues -- and they do not compare.

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The Arenas did it in the NHL's first season, when the League finished with three teams and the game was nothing like it is today. They defeated the Montreal Canadiens 10-7 in a two-game, total-goals NHL Final, then defeated the Vancouver Millionaires of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association 3-2 in a best-of-5 series for the Cup.

The Blues did it when the NHL doubled from six teams to 12 and put the expansion teams in the West Division. Four teams from the West played each other in the first two rounds, so an expansion team was guaranteed to win twice. The Blues won seven-game series against the Philadelphia Flyers and the Minnesota North Stars. When they crossed over and played the Canadiens in the Final, they got swept.

Maybe this story will end in the conference final. The Golden Knights will face a stiffer challenge against the Nashville Predators, the Presidents' Trophy winners, or the Winnipeg Jets, who finished second in the NHL standings. The Jets lead that second-round series 3-2. Game 6 is at Winnipeg on Monday (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVAS).

But who knows? Who knew any of this would happen?

"I think it's a great accomplishment," Fleury said. "But we're still only halfway, you know? We have to wait to see who comes out on top between Winnipeg and Nashville and get ready for that Game 1."

The Golden Knights were fifth in the NHL standings, and they went 2-1-0 against both the Predators and the Jets in the regular season. 

"It's a bit crazy thinking about it, for sure," defenseman Brayden McNabb said. "But we're here to win. We're not going to get caught up in 'You shouldn't be here' or blah, blah, blah, whatever. We're here to win."

 

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