So the greatest story in the NHL continues their ride towards the unthinkable after closing the Western Conference Finals last night. Vegas defeated a budding, and more favored Winnipeg team, in their own building and imposed their will more often than not in their five games against them to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
For many, seeing the Golden Knights go this far is just impossible to see. For others, they would like to see them wait a while so that they truly know what winning a Stanley Cup really feels like. For others, like yours truly, would wish certain individuals should have won it all while under their former team instead of in Vegas. But that is not a time and place to talk about that.
This is a time to celebrate how a group of 23 individuals deemed not good enough to be protected by their former teams in the expansion draft, play somewhere in a place that is not meant for hockey and are constantly beating the establishment to submission. There was never a better symbol emphasizing that “forget you” mentality than Deryk Engelland, a player looking like he was going to be out of the league for his performances with Calgary, carrying the Clarence S. Campbell trophy around the rink (O.M.G!). Whether this team is sustainable is also not a time and place to talk about that right now. I have constantly argued that Vegas lucked out by playing in the worst division in the entire NHL. That’s also not a time and place to discuss that.
What matters is, Vegas defeated a strong Winnipeg team and deserve to be a part of hockey’s ultimate showcase. Simply put, Vegas’ top line has just been downright unstoppable. Maybe they end up finding their match with the Steven Stamkos-Nikita Kucherov top line or the Ovechkin-Kuznetsov top line coming up. However, the point stands that if you’re going to beat Vegas, you’re going to have to overwhelm all three forwards because they compliment each other so well. It is so hard to ever develop a chemistry and consistency in which ALL three play a major part on the most important part of the team.
And just when you thought the Golden Knights were not a deep team, their fore-check from their fourth line and their second line was nothing short of relentless. Erik Haula and Alex Tuch brought something Minnesota never was able to unleash and delivered the first of the final killer blows to Winnipeg’s season. By the end of the series, Connor Hellebuyck, a Vezina Trophy finalist and probably the best American goaltender right now, looked so scared of doing anything wrong when coming out of his own crease. While he was admirable in Game 5, he simply looked like a shell of himself in comparison to the rest of the season. If Hellebuyk genuinely is an elite goaltender, him and his team will be back as this was a major stepping stone for his budding career.
But in the meantime, let’s take into account that for the first time all series, the winning team dominated the puck possession battle all game long. Winnipeg and their fans just looked out of sorts as soon as Tuch scored the first goal for the Golden Knights. You know its a dark place when Joe Morrow and Dmitry Kulikov had to be counted upon for Game 5 instead of Ben Chiarot and Toby Enstrom. It was a clear sign of desperation out of head coach Paul Maurice searching for answers on improving his team’s 94.8 PDO during the series.
On the other side, Vegas rode their 105.2 PDO to a Cup final and no one was more instrumental on that than the current Conn Smythe Trophy favorite himself, Marc-Andre Fleury. I’ve written too many things to say about the veteran netminder, but he just has simply been immense. Whether his run continues is anybody’s guess. Let’s not ignore also the fact that Vegas’ defense was so instrumental accross the board. Nate Schmidt carried that blue line on his back and it was Luca Sbisa, of all people (!!!!), who delivered the death blow via a deflection by Ryan Reaves, of all people (!!!!).
Yeah, this Vegas Golden Knights team is wierd. All the way from the fact that George McPhee looked like he lost the plot permanently in 2013-14, to Gerard Gallant having to be shamefully whisked away on a taxi after getting fired from his former job in Florida in 2017 and to the Medieval Times ripoff of a pre-game show that couldn’t define Las Vegas even more. Everything about them is incredible. Even if they were to lose in this next round, long may this team be celebrated, because my goodness is this sport terrible at celebrating such occasions en masse.