As the Stanley Cup playoffs begin, I ask myself: Do I want a Penguins-Golden Knights final?
My passion for the Pittsburgh Penguins persists, even as I’ve become a diehard Vegas Golden Knights fan. I get it when you look at me oddly when I say that. I know it’s hard to root for two teams in the same league, and I frequently would mock others who admitted to such bizarre behavior.
But I now find myself among them. I love the Golden Knights as I have written about here and here, but I remain a Penguins’ diehard. I know this because I was so pleased watching the game when the Philadelphia Flyers, the Penguins’ most heated rivals, were eliminated yet again from the playoffs.
There were times prior to the birth of the VGK when I wasn’t so sure which I enjoyed more: A Penguins’ win or a Flyers’ loss. I’ll be honest and admit that I love Penguins’ victories more, though not by much.
To me, there is nothing like the Stanley Cup playoffs. NHL hockey is great during the regular season, but it is off the charts amazing during the playoffs. The intensity and passion and emotion are remarkable, and if you’re not a hockey fan but you experience that once, I guarantee you will be a fan for life going forward.
I am facing a conundrum, though, because being a fan of the Golden Knights and the Penguins means I have to face a reality where they play each other in the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Lightning are the overwhelming favorite to win the Eastern Conference, as well as the Stanley Cup, but any team that has Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Phil Kessel can’t be discounted.
There is no such clear and convincing favorite in the Western Conference, and you could make a great case for the Flames, the Sharks, the Knights, the Jets, the Predators and the Blues to reach the finals.
The addition of Mark Stone at the trading deadline turned the Golden Knights from a good team and possible Cup contender into one of the favorites. He’s made a huge difference, and don’t be fooled by the seven losses in the final eight regular season games.
Marc-Andre Fleury didn’t play in the bulk of those, Malcolm Subban was shaky at best. Plus, the Knights didn’t have the same kind of motivation knowing they were pretty much locked into third place in the conference.
Fleury had another sensational year in goal and figures to give Vegas a massive advantage over the Sharks’ Martin Jones. That match could ultimately be the difference in the series.
But with just about everyone on the Knights’ now healthy and even Erik Haula, once believed done for the season, a possibility to return, Vegas has incredible forward depth.
The second line of Max Pacioretty, Paul Stastny and Stone has been excellent, and dominant at times. Their pairing has taken a lot of the pressure off the VGK’s so-called top line of Reilly Smith, Jonathan Marchessault and William “Wild Bill” Karlsson.
That line responded after Stone’s acquisition by playing as well as any line in the league down the stretch, and at least as well as it did last year in leading the Knights to within three wins of the Cup.
If Haula comes back and is anywhere near his old self — He scored 29 goals for the VGK in 76 games last season — the Knights will have enviable forward depth. Haula on a third line with Alex Tuch and Cody Eakin would almost be unfair. If Coach Gerard Gallant keeps the Pierre-Edouard Bellemare-Ryan Reaves-William Carrier line intact, a Haula return would mean the Knights would be scratching what would be a more than solid fourth line each night with Tomas Nosek, Ryan Carpenter and Brandon Pirri not making the lineup.
I’m all in on the Golden Knights. When I bought my season tickets prior to the inaugural year, I was a full-fledged Penguins’ fan. I thought I’d go to the games and enjoy NHL hockey and have fun. A whole confluence of events, including the tragedy on 1 October in 2017, the team’s unexpectedly spirited play and my love for the city of Las Vegas combined to make me a VGK fan, too. I’ve lived in Las Vegas longer than I have lived anywhere else, and this is my home. It’s my city.
But I became a Penguins’ fan in 1967. More than 40 years before the Golden Knights were conceived, I was a Penguins season ticket holder. You didn’t really know me if you didn’t know of my lifelong love affair with the Penguins.
When they defeated the Minnesota North Stars in 1991 to win their first Stanley Cup, I bawled my eyes out. I was so happy I couldn’t contain myself.
And despite my love for the Golden Knights, that passion hasn’t gone away.
It will be torture, though, if they play each other in the Finals. I can’t root against Fleury, but nor can I root against Crosby, two of the best people you’d be lucky enough to meet.
If the Penguins manage to win the Cup this year, it will be the franchise’s sixth, tying the Boston Bruins for fourth-most in NHL history. This is a franchise which has had some of the greatest players to ever step onto the ice. Mario Lemieux. Jaromir Jagr. Ron Francis. Sidney Crosby. Evgeni Malkin. And yes, Marc-Andre Fleury.
I have been with the Penguins forever. It’s almost impossible to root against them.
But I love Las Vegas, deeply, and never want to leave here. The Golden Knights are a vital piece of this community. Pacioretty said not long after coming to Las Vegas that while he wasn’t sure how much the fans here loved hockey, the one thing he was certain of is their intense love for this team.
When I walk into T-Mobile Arena before a Knights’ game, it feels like home, as if it’s where I’m supposed to be. I have gotten jaded by covering sports for these last four decades, and I’ve been blessed to have great seats for some of the most significant sporting events ever.
But I am able to be a fan at VGK games. On Saturday, I flew to Los Angeles to watch the final game of the regular season. It meant nothing. The Knights had clinched the playoffs and were locked into third place. They’d play the Sharks in the first round. Nothing that happened in that Kings’ game would matter.
And I knew the Knights wouldn’t play all of their stars, which they didn’t. Smith sat out. Stone sat out. So did defenseman Nate Schmidt, one of my favorites.
But I was there, five rows from the ice, in my white VGK jersey, cheering on the team. I ran into the parents of newly signed player Jimmy Schuldt, and I slapped high fives with VGK fans around me when they scored. And you bet I shouted “Knights!” at the top of my lungs when the national anthem got to the point where they sang, “gave proof through the … “
A Stanley Cup final would make me choose between them, and I don’t want to choose. But neither do I want either of them to lose.
It’s going to be tough.
But it’s also going to be great.
Let’s go Pens.
Go Knights go.
Let the Stanley Cup playoffs begin!