Ten key moments which helped Vegas Golden Knights to Stanley Cup Finals
The Vegas Golden Knights set a pile of records during their inaugural NHL season and improbably won the Western Conference and will play for the Stanley Cup.
There were many moves and moments which led to the team getting to the Finals, but these are 10 that helped define the franchise.
10. Golden Knights claim goaltender Malcom Subban on waivers from Boston — Not many are going to remember Oct. 3, 2017, as a significant date in Golden Knights’ franchise history, but it was the date that goaltender Malcom Subban was claimed off waivers from the Boston Bruins. Subban had been a first-round pick of the Boston Bruins in 2012, but hadn’t made his mark.
It appeared that Calvin Pickard, chosen from the Colorado Avalanche in the expansion draft, would be the Knights’ backup goaltender to Marc-Andre Fleury. It wasn’t a bad choice, either. Pickard was Colorado’s primary starter during the 2016-17 season and showed he would be reliable in the NHL.
The Knights, though, opted to go with Subban as the backup, and it paid big dividends when Fleury suffered a concussion on Oct. 13 against Detroit that caused him to miss 25 games.
Subban proved to be extraordinarily effective in Fleury’s absence, and helped save the season while Fleury was out. He finished with a 13-4-2 record, a 2.68 goals against average and a .910 save percentage. With lesser goaltending during Fleury’s absence, the Knights could have sunk to the bottom of the NHL standings and never been heard from again.
Instead, well, you know.
9. Ryan Carpenter claimed off waivers from the San Jose Sharks — The day after a disheartening overtime loss at home to Carolina, general manager George McPhee claimed Carpenter, a forward, off the waiver wire. After waiting a long time to play, Carpenter proved to be an outstanding pickup. He has scored timely goals, played good defense and has been a reliable face-off man.
8. That great month of December — The Golden Knights firmly established themselves as among the NHL elite in December, going 11-1-1. Significantly, in a stretch that extended to Jan. 2, the Knights defeated the NHL’s best franchises.
Fleury returned from his concussion on Dec. 14 in an emotional game against the Pittsburgh Penguins at T-Mobile Arena. He was brilliant in a 2-1 victory. On Dec. 19, the Knights got a power-play goal from Shea Theodore with 2.3 seconds left to defeat Tampa Bay, 4-3. They defeated Nashville in a shootout in Nashville on Dec. 8, and then blanked the Predators 2-0 in a return engagement at T-Mobile Arena on Jan. 2.
They shut out Washington 3-0 on Dec. 23, and then bested Toronto 6-3 on New Year’s Eve.
So they had a win over the two-time reigning Stanley Cup champions, two over the defending Western Conference champions, one each over the teams currently playing in the Eastern Conference finals and then another over a talented and highly regarded young Toronto team.
Everyone in the organization was convinced they were for real at that point.
7. GM George McPhee added, and didn’t subtract, at trade deadline — When the Golden Knights picked forwards David Perron and James Neal and defenseman Luca Sbisa in the expansion draft, it was widely, and probably correctly, assumed they’d be trade deadline fodder for McPhee to use to add draft picks.
All three were unrestricted free agents after the season.
But when the trade deadline arrived, McPhee added players, acquiring Tomas Tatar from Detroit and Ryan Reaves from Pittsburgh, instead of subtracting. That was a defining moment because it signified to the team and to the city that McPhee believed it had a chance to win it all. Had McPhee not believed that, have no doubt Perron, Neal and Sbisa would have been moved.
6. The development of Alex Tuch and Shea Theodore — The Knights acquired Tuch from Minnesota and Theodore from Anaheim at the expansion draft in trades as part of deals to not select other players. Tuch, a bruising 6-foot-4 forward who was Minnesota’s No. 1 pick in 2014, is developing into the NHL’s prototypical power forward. Theodore, a slick-skating defenseman, is a power-play quarterback and potential No. 1 defenseman.
Both were sent to the minors at the start of the season, even though it seemed they belong in the NHL. But they played well with the Chicago Wolves. Tuch had four goals and an assist in three games with Chicago. In eight games, Theodore had five goals and 11 points for the Wolves.
They were quickly recalled by the Knights and developed into impact players once the playoffs began.
5. The home opener — The Knights’ response to the tragedy of Oct. 1, in which a madman murdered 58 people and injured more than 800 others, was nearly perfect. They hit all the right chords in the pregame ceremony prior to the inaugural home game in franchise history on Oct. 10.
It was a solemn, reverential ceremony that clearly bonded the city with the team and its players. The players had gotten to work the day after the shooting by donating blood, visiting victims in the hospital and doing whatever they could to try to help the city heal and recover.
The Knights then came out and scored four goals in the game’s first 10:42. The crowd was in a frenzy and a bond was built on that night that led to Vegas having perhaps the best home-ice advantage in the league.
4. Hiring George McPhee as general manager and Gerard Gallant as head coach — Owner Bill Foley scored back-to-back home runs with his hires of McPhee to be general manager and Gallant to be the coach. Both were highly regarded in the NHL and each performed far better than Foley ever had a right to imagine.
Nearly every move McPhee made was right. He built a fast, deep team out of the expansion draft that is equipped to win in the modern game. Gallant was the perfect coach for what is a veteran team, trusting his players to play the right way and not dwelling on mistakes or losses.
Together, they’ve made the Knights one of the league’s model franchises, and Las Vegas figures to be on the list of nearly every prominent free agent over the next several years. The team is committed to winning, has great facilities, a player-friendly coach and plenty of cap space.
3. Sweeping the Kings in the first round — Despite how well the Knights did in the regular season — and a 51-24-7 mark, 109 points and a Pacific Division title was way beyond what was expected — the Knights still faced question marks as the playoffs began.
The Kings had won two Stanley Cups in the six prior season and had elite players like Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Quick. But the Knights eliminated them in four straight and showed they undoubtedly were for real.
2. The development of the Karlsson line — If there was a better two-way line in the NHL this season than William Karlsson, Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault, I missed them. Karlsson deserved Selke consideration as the league’s best defensive forward, but he also scored 43 goals.
There are many who watched the Knights regularly who believed that Smith, another excellent two-way player, was the team’s best overall player. Though Marchessault wasn’t Selke material, he significantly improved his play away from the puck and in his own end while scoring at nearly a point-a-game clip. He scored 75 points in 77 regular season games and has 18 points in 15 playoff games.
That line was magnificent from the start and never had a protracted slump. It matched against most of the opposition’s best and come out on top more often than not.
1. The selection of Marc-Andre Fleury in the expansion draft — No team wins a Stanley Cup without quality goaltending, and Fleury may have had his best year with the Golden Knights, even after an outstanding career in Pittsburgh.
He routinely made saves that defied logic and rarely let in a soft one. On the few occasions he did give up what could be called a weak goal, he’d come back and play brilliantly.
In addition, he was the team’s de facto captain and the face of the franchise. He gave the team a superstar, a familiar face and a figure for the other players to rally around.
Without Marc-Andre Fleury, this team is nowhere near the Stanley Cup Finals.