The Associated Press
SAN JOSE, Calif.–The crew of cast-offs that carried the expansion Vegas Golden Knights to a division title and two rounds of playoffs wins in a reality-defying season are more than just a feel-good story.
They’ve proven themselves to be legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
Marc-Andre Fleury was his usual brilliant self with 28 saves in his fourth shutout of the post-season, and Vegas benefited from a couple of fortunate bounces, to advance to the Western Conference final with a 3-0 victory over the San Jose Sharks yesterday.
“It’s a bit crazy thinking about it, for sure,” said defenceman Brayden McNabb.
“But we’re here to win,” he stressed. “We’re not going to get caught up in we shouldn’t be here or whatever.
“We’re here to win.”
The Golden Knights have done that all season despite being thrown together at the expansion draft last June among players deemed expendable by their former teams.
They won eight of nine games to open the season to take the league by a bit of shock, posted 109 points to win a Pacific Division filled with playoff-tested teams, and then have gone 8-2 in the playoffs with a first-round sweep against L.A. and a six-game series win over the Sharks.
They became just the third team in NHL history to win multiple series in its first season.
The Toronto Arenas won the Stanley Cup in the first post-season in league history in 1918 while St. Louis won two rounds to win the all-expansion West Division in 1968.
Next up for Vegas is the Western Conference final against either Winnipeg or Nashville.
The Jets lead that series 3-2 heading into Game 6 at home tonight.
While the Golden Knights got help from a couple of shots that hit the iron and went out for San Jose, and one that went off the post and into the net for a goal by Nate Schmidt that was only detectable on replay, the recipe for success has been speed, tenacity, and depth more than luck.
“We 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,” he added. “That’s what’s made us successful.”
Fleury has been a big part of that, capped by his fourth career series-clinching shutout–one shy of Chris Osgood’s NHL record.
Fleury allowed just three goals in the sweep against the Kings, posted shutouts in the opening and closing games against San Jose, and was brilliant in an overtime win in Game 3 over the Sharks.
But he has had plenty of help. William Karlsson scored 43 goals in the regular season and had the overtime winner in Game 3 of this series.
Jonathan Marchessault is tied for the team lead with 11 points this post-season, including the first goal in the clincher against the Sharks.
Even the fourth line played a big role yesterday by controlling the puck and hemming San Jose in the defensive zone.
“We’re having a lot of fun in this room,” Schmidt said. “The guys have just been having a blast all year with each other.
“I think that we’ve done a lot more than we thought we were capable of, but we continue to set the bar to new heights with our group,” he noted.
“We continue to just set new expectations for yourself.
“This group believes in each other and that’s more than anything you can ask for,” Schmidt added.
Elsewhere in the NHL, Tampa Bay beat Boston 3-1 to win their Eastern Conference semi-final series 4-1.