It is hard to quibble with anything the Golden Knights have done over their first four years. After starting from scratch, they have gone on to become one of the most dominant franchises in the National Hockey League. This is their third Stanley Cup semi-final already; over that span, only the Tampa Bay Lightning have made it to the final four more than twice.
It is enough to make success-starved fans in Toronto – and most everywhere else on the hockey-playing planet – weep.
They hammered the Montreal Canadiens in the opening game of the series between the teams on Monday. It was Montreal’s first defeat since Game 4 in the opening round. Vegas withstood a fast start by its opponent, took over in the second period and locked things down in the third en route to a convincing 4-1 victory.
The score would have been more lopsided if not for the brilliance of Carey Price in the Canadiens’ net. He was splendid – and outdone by Marc-André Fleury, his counterpart with the Golden Knights. To watch them is like scrutinizing the brush strokes of two master painters in a desperate search for a flaw. Is that a bit of a tiny paint drip I see? Ah, never mind.
Fleury won Round 1, with the return engagement on Wednesday night at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Games 3 and 4 will be on Friday and Sunday at the Bell Centre in Montreal. Remaining games, if necessary, will alternate between the cities. The first to beat the other four times advances to the Stanley Cup final. Vegas did that in its inaugural season only to lose to the Washington Capitals and launch Alex Ovechkin on a days-long bender.
Ten players remain on the roster from that first year. It was a team that was constructed out of castoffs around Fleury, who won it all three times in Pittsburgh before the Penguins cut him loose in the expansion draft.
With all of its gifted players, Pittsburgh has won one postseason series since then. The Golden Knights are shooting for their eighth now.
“It’s been some time now, but a lot from that first year still lingers,” Brayden McNabb, the Vegas defenceman, said Tuesday. “The city itself and the fans are still as awesome as ever. The experience from that first run goes a long way for the guys who were there.
“The team has changed quite a bit – has brought in a lot of good players, good character guys and good leaders, and I think we have gotten better from that.”
The Golden Knights won 40 times during the COVID-abbreviated, 56-game regular season. That was the most in the league, and now in the Canadiens they face a club that is playing its best at the most opportune time.
Montreal is a big underdog, but has done well to rally to win three in a row to beat Toronto then win four straight over Winnipeg.
“We are not taking anything for granted,” Vegas head coach Peter DeBoer said Tuesday. “We know the character of that team over there. We know what they have done. We have been in that spot ourselves, where people have written us off.
“We have won one game. I think we can play better, and I am sure they will say they can play better, too. It all comes down to who responds the best in Game 2.”
The Golden Knights came from behind to win their previous series over the Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche. They jumped all over Montreal on Monday and looked very much like a team that is ready to take the next step. With three more wins, they will get a second crack at a Stanley Cup.
“I think there is a bond between the players from our first year that are still here,” William Karlsson, a Vegas centre, said. “I think it is always going to be there.”
There are new faces such as Mark Stone and Alex Pietrangelo that have solidified an already formidable core.
“They are a very good team and are here for a reason,” Canadiens centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi said. “So are we. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy.”
It gets harder after a team loses Game 1.