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Golden Knights end 'unbelievable year' with loss in Cup Final

Falling to Capitals can't erase what Vegas accomplished during inaugural season

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

LAS VEGAS -- It was still a moment to savor.

The Vegas Golden Knights' season had ended with a 4-3 loss in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final on Thursday. They had to watch the Washington Capitals celebrate on their home ice at T-Mobile Arena.

Yet the first one through the handshake line, center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, glided back across center ice and bent over at the waist. He ran his bare right hand along the ice and the words "INAUGURAL SEASON GOLDEN KNIGHTS." He patted the word "KNIGHTS."

 

[RELATED: Complete Golden Knights vs. Capitals series coverage | Capitals Championship Gear]

 

Then he skated to the Stanley Cup Final logo inside the Vegas blue line where the Cup was painted. He rubbed the bowl as if it were the real thing.

One by one, his teammates skated over to where he was. Finally, the fans cheered -- louder and louder and louder -- and twirled their rally towels. The Golden Knights raised their sticks in salute and returned the applause before heading to the locker room.

"It's the worst feeling ever," defenseman Deryk Engelland said. "To lose at this point, it's awful."

Oh, they will hurt for a long, long time. After Game 1, the Golden Knights had a 1-0 lead in the Final and a 13-3 record in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They were three wins away and -- poof, just like that -- they lost four consecutive games for the first time ever.

Except for goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who won the Cup three times with the Pittsburgh Penguins, none of the Golden Knights have won it. From general manager George McPhee to coach Gerard Gallant to the players who have spent careers chasing it, it's excruciating.

Video: WSH@VGK, Gm5: Gallant on tough Game 5 defeat

But the pain is an accomplishment.

They weren't supposed to be here to endure it, not even close, and even though they didn't complete the fairy tale with a championship, they built a lasting legacy on and off the ice. They will go down as the greatest expansion team of all time. They turned a new market into a rabid one. On top of that, they helped unite and heal a grieving city after the mass shooting on the Strip on Oct. 1.

"To be standing here today, as bad as it feels, you've got to be proud of the group in here," Engelland said.

The NHL awarded Las Vegas an expansion franchise less than two years ago, on June 22, 2016, giving the city its first major league sports team. T-Mobile Arena hosted the NHL Expansion Draft less than a year ago, on June 21, 2017. The Golden Knights benefitted from rules more favorable than to expansion teams of the past. Still, they acquired players who, at minimum, weren't valued as highly as others by their former teams.

Forward David Perron said people thought playing in Vegas would "be a fun experience and not much else."

Video: WSH@VGK, Gm5: Golden Knights skate off to applause

It was so much more.

"Seriously, it was just an amazing experience," forward Jonathan Marchessault said, fighting back emotion. "I never felt part of a family like this, a community. It was an unbelievable year. The fans were amazing. I never wanted to go to war more with a bunch of guys like that too. It's been definitely fun."

The Golden Knights were forced to come together with each other and their new home after the shooting. They visited victims, families, first responders and blood donors, held an emotional ceremony before their home opener Oct. 10, and continued the "Vegas Strong" bond throughout the season in ways public, private and personal.

No one thought they would make the playoffs. But they finished the regular season 51-24-7, winning the Pacific Division and finishing fifth in the NHL with 109 points. They had 26 more points, 18 more wins, seven more home wins and two more road wins than any other team ever had in its inaugural season. 

They defeated the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and Winnipeg Jets in the playoffs, becoming the first team to win three series in an inaugural season. Except for the 1918 Toronto Arenas, who won the Cup in the NHL's inaugural season, no team ever ended its first season better. 

"Very proud of our group," forward James Neal said. "We came together fast, we became a team and we did great things this year. So obviously very hard right now."

Video: WSH@VGK, Gm5: Capitals, Golden Knights shake hands

Losing is hard. So is winning in its own way. Contrast this with the Capitals, who went 8-67-5 in their first season, 1974-75. They had to wait 24 years to make their first Stanley Cup Final, in 1998, and 20 more to make their second, this one.

People will have to remember that and temper expectations in the future. This season was a perfect storm of unique circumstances, there is nothing like your first time, and the Golden Knights might look and perform differently next season. Will Neal and Perron return as unrestricted free agents? Will the many players who had career seasons -- most notably Fleury and center William Karlsson -- play as well again?

But these are good problems to have, and there is so much to look forward to. This season has shown how hot hockey can be in Las Vegas, and the Golden Knights are set up to be competitive for the foreseeable future. They have depth. They have assets. They have salary cap space.

Owner Bill Foley wanted to make the playoffs in three years and win the Cup in six. The Golden Knights almost did both in one. They have five years left to meet his deadline for the ultimate goal.

"You don't want to finish on a note like that necessarily," Marchessault said. "But one thing I know: We'll be back."

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