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Stanley Cup Final | Golden Knights vs. Capitals

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Golden Knights get wild win against Capitals in Game 1

Players feed off crowd's energy, find way to pull out victory in Cup Final

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

LAS VEGAS -- The Vegas Golden Knights hosted the NHL Expansion Draft at T-Mobile Arena on June 21, 2017. After collecting castoffs from 30 established teams, general manager George McPhee sat on stage for a roundtable discussion before thousands of fans. He listed the great experiences of his hockey career and left room for one more.

"The Stanley Cup is going to be up there," he said.

The fans cheered.

 

[RELATED: Fourth line boosts Golden Knights in third | Complete Golden Knights vs. Capitals series coverage]

 

In the same place 342 nights later, the Golden Knights defeated the Washington Capitals 6-4 and took a 1-0 lead in the Stanley Cup Final. They are three wins from a championship in their inaugural season entering Game 2 of this best-of-7 series here on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS). It's one of the most amazing stories in sports history and no surprise at all.

"You look at this whole year, we've been able to do things that aren't expected of our group," defenseman Nate Schmidt said. "It's just kind of something we expect out of ourselves now."

You keep wondering what more the Golden Knights can do, what other tricks they can pull in the pregame festivities to overload your senses, how they can find ways to win again. Then they crank it up yet another notch. Then they win a seesaw game with three third-period goals from fourth-liners.

Lil Jon gave a free concert outside T-Mobile Arena before the game, asking thousands of fans packing Toshiba Plaza, "Turn down for what?" He wore a "LIL JON" No. 17 Golden Knights jersey on stage with cheerleaders, drummers and the Stanley Cup. He led chants of "Go, Knights, go!"

Video: Lil Jon performs for Vegas fans ahead of Game 1

Carrot Top marched through the concourse banging a cowbell with drummers and Chance, the Gila monster mascot. Showgirls danced behind the glass in the visitors' end during warmup again while Cirque du Soleil performers roamed the stands in costume. The bass rattled your bones, as usual.

"It was crazy," forward Ryan Reaves said. "Warmups, I looked up, and everybody was in the building already. I kind of got some chills. The atmosphere was, you know, just Vegas atmosphere."

A villain descended from the rafters on a wire to fight the Golden Knight character in a pregame show that included virtual flaming arrows and a virtual catapult. Then the players came out. The starters were told to stay on the blue lines after the national anthem but not told why.

As soon as Michael Buffer appeared, Schmidt understood. Buffer is the legendary boxing ring announcer. It was time for the main event.

"Let's get ready to rumblllllllle!" Buffer said. 

Video: WSH@VGK, Gm1: Buffer announces starting lineups

Buffer announced the coaches and starters as if this were the first round of a heavyweight title bout, which it was.

"I was like, 'I'm ready to rumble,' " Schmidt said, smiling. "He was spot on. I know how Floyd [Mayweather Jr.] feels after all these years. That's pretty cool."

Mayweather, the former boxing champion, was in the stands, of course, as the teams traded blows. It was 1-0, Vegas. Then it was 2-1, Washington. Then it was 3-2, Vegas. Then it was 4-3, Washington.

"It's the Stanley Cup Final," forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare said. "I didn't expect 6-0."

Each time the Golden Knights fell behind, there was a loud roar. There was a lot of red in the stands. There were more opposing fans at T-Mobile Arena than for any other game in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, by far.

But each time, there was a "Go, Knights, go!" chant too, and as they have throughout the playoffs, the Golden Knights struck back quickly. After forward Tom Wilson put Washington ahead 4-3 at 1:10 of the third period, forward Ryan Reaves tied it 4-4 at 2:41. Forward Tomas Nosek put Vegas ahead 5-4 at 9:44 and scored an empty-net goal at 19:57 to make it 6-4.

Video: WSH@VGK, Gm1: Nosek nets Theodore's perfect feed

"That's one of the biggest things about this team," Reaves said. "When something goes wrong we bounce back quickly. I don't know how many times the other team has scored in the playoffs, and the next shift or two, we've gone out and scored."

The Golden Knights -- each one of whom was claimed in the expansion draft, claimed on waivers or acquired in a trade -- are 13-3 in the playoffs. They're 7-1 at T-Mobile Arena, and their lone loss came in double overtime, 4-3 against the San Jose Sharks in Game 2 of the Western Conference Second Round on April 28. They are not supposed to be here, not even close, and that's one of the many reasons they are.

"That's why we're having fun with it," Schmidt said. "That's why our group is as resilient as it is. You go out there and you play loose and play confident, and then you're able to go back and get a goal when they get one and push back and have that type of resiliency."

Video: WSH@VGK, Gm1: Vegas' ceremony kicks off Cup Final

The night of the expansion draft, McPhee stayed on stage briefly before catching a red-eye to Chicago for the NHL Draft.

"We've worked really hard to have success in this first critical stage," he said then. "And I think we got it right."

If he only knew.

***

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