LAS VEGAS — On 62 different occasions this season, the Vegas Golden Knights jumped over the bench, glided to their goaltender and celebrated a victory.
Friday night, for the 62nd time, it was different. There was a pep in the step of Vegas players as they raced toward Marc-Andre Fleury. The hugs were a bit harder. The fist pumps were more noticeable. In the locker room, the Golden Knights won’t cave into talking about it until they know it’s officially over.
But they know. Not even the one-game-at-a-time mentality coach Gerard Gallant has instilled in this team since the first day of training camp can’t cloud the underlying truth that faces this expansion team that has defied all sense of reality since December.
The Vegas Golden Knights — the expansion team, the Golden Misfits, the Cinderella story that puts Cinderella to shame — are one win away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final.
Yes, it’s Year 1. The Golden Knights and Stanley Cup Final are in the same sentence and it’s not in the form of the NHL 18 video game. There are no cheat codes, and this isn’t on rookie difficulty. The Golden Knights are one win away from representing the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Final and are five wins away winning the whole thing. The Vegas Golden Knights are five wins away from winning the damn Stanley Cup.
Vegas isn’t just one win away from reaching the finals. Vegas is doing it at the expense of the overpowered Winnipeg Jets, the No. 2 team in the NHL. With the exception of the first eight minutes of Game 1 and the third periods of Games 2 and 3, the Golden Knights have been the better team in this series. When there were moments Vegas needed a response after Winnipeg scored, the Golden Knights delivered — Jonathan Marchessault’s second goal in Game 2, James Neal’s goal in Game 3 and Tomas Nosek’s goal in Game 4.
Winnipeg, a team capable of stealing momentum at the snap of a finger, has not been able to garner control of this series since Game 1.
“I think all series long we have been doing that,” Fleury said about those responses. “I feel like Winnipeg is a team that feeds off of the momentum after they get a goal. We have been great at it. They get a goal and we go at them right back and if we can score some big goals like that it keeps the momentum on our side and keep grinding it out.”
And yet, in a series full of responses from Vegas, the game-winning goal from Reilly Smith on Friday added another chapter to this book that should nowhere near be ending right now. The Jets dominated the third period. They outshot the Golden Knights 13-3 at one point, looking like it was only a matter of time before overtime or Winnipeg would steal one from the jaws of defeat.
There’s magic inside T-Mobile Arena. It’s the only explanation for Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien to completely whiff on the puck from the blue line, allowing Smith to steal it and beat Connor Hellebuyck short side for the 3-2 lead. Logic, however, has been thrown out the window for months now.
“I was just trying to get as much ice as I could before the other defenseman closed in,” Smith said. “I pretty much buried my head in and put it on net. Hellebuyck is a big goalie so it’s tough to score on him far side.”
None of what has gone on since Opening Night on Oct. 6 seems real at this point, but this entire Golden Knights season has been built on some unfathomable nirvana that goes beyond smelling like teen spirit. For the better part of seven months, the most frequently-asked question about this team has either been “How?” Or, “Why?”
I have been unable to come up with a legitimate answer since December, until now. It took 62 wins and a win in Game 4 of the Western Conference freaking Finals against the Jets to accept reality that the Golden Knights are the best team in the NHL. They roll four lines with ease. Their forechecking and 200-foot game is solid across the board. Their defensemen, primarily Nate Schmidt, have been playing some of their best hockey all season at the right time. And of course, there’s Fleury and his magic.
All of that, after seven months, is why the Golden Knights are on the doorstep of history. And on Sunday, they’ll have a chance to kick that door down.