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Golden Knights' trip to Stanley Cup Final helps healing process

Storybook season that started with tragedy is four wins from championship

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

WINNIPEG -- They talked about it ahead of time, just in case. The Vegas Golden Knights didn't have a captain. They were the epitome of a team. So if they defeated the Winnipeg Jets and won the Western Conference, who would accept the Clarence Campbell Bowl?

It had to be defenseman Deryk Engelland, because this storybook season has been about more than becoming the greatest expansion team of all-time, more than establishing the NHL in a new market and more than giving Las Vegas its first major league sports team.

So after the Golden Knights' 2-1 victory in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final at Bell MTS Place on Sunday, after they mobbed goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, shook hands with the Jets and pulled on "CONFERENCE CHAMPIONS" hats, Engelland skated to NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly.

 

[RELATED: How Golden Knights reached 2018 Stanley Cup Final in inaugural season | Golden Knights timeline for success exceeded all expectations]

 

He held the Campbell Bowl a little more than seven months after he held a microphone.

On Oct. 10, nine days after 58 people were killed and hundreds injured in a mass shooting on the Strip, Engelland gave a speech during a ceremony before the home opener at T-Mobile Arena. He'd played in Las Vegas in the ECHL in 2003-05 and '04-05. He'd met his wife there. They'd had their children there and lived in there in the offseason.

"I know how special this city is," he told the crowd. "To all the brave first responders that have worked tirelessly and courageously through this whole tragedy, we thank you. To the families and friends of the victims, we'll do everything we can to help you and our city heal. We are Vegas Strong."

And now?

"It means a lot to us," he said. "This is what you play for all season. After Oct. 1, those first games, you want to play for the city, the people that were affected by it. To make this run, win this series and move on, it's awesome for us, but it all comes back to the city and the people affected by that."

Video: VGK@WPG, Gm5: Vegas wins WCF, advances to Cup Final

It would have been impressive enough for the Golden Knights to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Though they had rules in the NHL Expansion Draft more favorable than to teams in the past, they still acquired players deemed expendable by their former teams. Though they were expected to be good for an expansion team, no one picked them make it.

Owner Bill Foley's goal was to make the playoffs in three years and win the Cup in six.

But they didn't just make the playoffs. They went 51-24-7, won the Pacific Division and finished fifth in the NHL with 109 points, shattering records for first-year teams. They swept the Los Angeles Kings in the first round and defeated the San Jose Sharks in six games in the second round. Now they have defeated the Jets in five games in the conference final.

After losing Game 1, they won four straight against the No. 2 team in the regular season -- and never trailed while doing so. They closed a series on the road for the third straight time. They are 12-3. They are the third team to make the Stanley Cup Final in an inaugural season after the 1918 Toronto Arenas and 1968 St. Louis Blues, but the Arenas did it in the NHL's first season and the Blues did it when an expansion team was guaranteed to do so.

"I think there were definitely low expectations for us," forward Jonathan Marchessault said. "The belief was high for us. … It was the same thing from the beginning of the year. Everybody thought, oh, we were going to let go at some point. We just love to go against the haters."

Tweet from @GoldenKnights: WESTERNCONFERENCE CHAMPS pic.twitter.com/iHfHwqpwcv

Las Vegas has fallen in love with them in the process. T-Mobile Arena has become one of craziest venues in the NHL, from the show business fit for the entertainment capital of the world to the stands full of locals cheering and chanting. Thousands watched on screens at Toshiba Plaza outside the rink on Sunday. Golden Knights gear is everywhere in town.

No, the city has not suffered like other NHL markets. But there is suffering with a team and suffering without one. Las Vegas never had a major league team to unite the natives and transplants, something around which to rally, something to distract from real life. Then came the Golden Knights. Then came the shooting. Then came a season out of a movie.

And now comes the Stanley Cup Final against the Washington Capitals. Vegas went 2-0-0 against Washington in the regular season.

Video: #ThirstForTheCup: Vegas advances to Stanley Cup Final

"[The shooting] was a big moment obviously in the city," Fleury said. "I think as a team, we couldn't heal anybody. But if we could just change their mind a bit throughout those first few weeks and throughout the season, getting them to be proud of the team, cheering for something, we were able to provide a little bit of that for Vegas."

Can you imagine if Engelland holds something else in the end?

"Definitely want to help him to get that Cup for our city," Marchessault said.

***

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