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Star players delivered in Golden Knights’ comeback against Avalanche

It was a running gag for two games.

It started with Game 3. Then again in Game 5.

I promise the Golden Knights players don’t read my tweets (that I know of) but someone got the memo.

Because once Mikko Rantanen’s goal in overtime of Game 2 hit twine, the big-name players that define this 4-year-old organization did what they were paid to do. And it’s because of those big names that the Golden Knights reeled off four straight wins and defeated the Presidents’ Trophy winning Colorado Avalanche in six games, capped by a 6-3 win in Game 6 at T-Mobile Arena on Thursday.

Vegas will play the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Semifinals. Game 1 is Monday.

“I don’t think there was a person in the hockey world, when we were down 2-0, that would predict we would finish this off in six at home tonight,” said Vegas coach Pete DeBoer. “There was a lot more talk about us being swept, embarrassed, and could we even win a game? We’ve got a group with a lot of pride and they just blocked out the noise and went to work. What a night.”

Call me one of those who didn’t think such a thing was possible. It’s not because Vegas wasn’t up to par with the Avalanche; the teams split all eight meetings in the regular season and the Golden Knights even won twice at Ball Arena.

Narrative, as has often been said, is fickle. Said narrative was this would be the year the Avalanche broke through with the conglomerate of star power at their disposal. This was Nathan MacKinnon’s time to take his place as the best player in the world; the hockey gods would smile on the emergence of Cale Makar; Philipp Grubauer is playing at a Vezina-caliber level, he will do what must be done.

The Golden Knights outshot the Avalanche 167-126 from Game 2 on in all situations; outdid them in high-danger chances 40-25 in Games 3-5, and had 59 percent of the expected goals in the series at 5-on-5 combined. Vegas’ top line held the MacKinnon line to three combined points in Games 3-5 and handed the Avalanche their only four-game losing streak this season.

Much like in life, narrative is never absolute. Not only did the Golden Knights show they could compete with the high-powered Avalanche; they dominated Colorado. Sure, two games were decided by one goal and one went to overtime. But as the series progressed, the Golden Knights found themselves not just on equal footing with the Avalanche — they were squishing them under their boot.

And it all came from those making the big bucks:

  • Jonathan Marchessault, from his game-tying goal in Game 3 to his hat trick 48 hours later, showed why he’s still valuable.
  • Max Pacioretty, who has a point in every game since returning from injury in Game 7 against Minnesota, is showing his worth.
  • Alex Pietrangelo, who Pete DeBoer called the best player in this series, scored the game-winning goal in Game 6 and is showing why he’s worth every bit of that $61.6 million contract.
  • Marc-Andre Fleury, who has bailed out this team time and time again in what is shaping up to be a Vezina Trophy season, made big saves when it mattered.
  • Mark Stone, whose only shot on goal in Game 5 was the overtime winner that put the Golden Knights within striking distance, showed why he’s the first captain of this team./

That’s just the cliff-notes version. Alex Tuch, who was mostly quiet in this series, scores the goal in Game 5 to jumpstart that comeback. William Karlsson had a point in all but one game. Alec Martinez blocked a game-high nine shots and set up Karlsson for the go-ahead goal in the first period of Game 6.

In a series that was predicated on Vegas’ stars playing like such, the Golden Knights got help from their depth on Thursday. Two goals from the fourth line (Keegan Kolesar, William Carrier), two goals from defensemen (Nick Holden, Pietrangelo) a top-six even-strength goal (Karlsson) and an empty-netter (Pacioretty) were the tallies on this night.

“We’ve got a lot of guys that buy into their roles. It’s nice to see them get rewarded,” Stone said. “Those guys have been soldiers for us all year. For those guys to come through … we had so many guys come in and out of the lineup throughout this series and that’s what it takes to beat a team like that.”

Not much has changed from this Golden Knights lineup to the one that reached the Western Conference Final last season. The personnel, for the most part, is the same from the group that could not solve Thatcher Demko and Anton Khudobin. There’s no worry about that for right now; the Golden Knights averaged 4.25 goals in these four straight wins.

The Golden Knights are in the final four for the third time in four years. Now they’re four wins away from getting another crack at what they were three wins away from four years ago.

This time, the star power is prepared to make that final push.

“It’s so hard to get to this point,” DeBoer said. “Everyone talks about winning the Stanley Cup … this is hard. It’s hard to win a series, it’s hard to make the playoffs in this league. What these men here have accomplished is unreal.”