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LAS VEGAS (AP) A year ago at this time the Vegas Golden
Knights had one minor league player on an otherwise empty roster and no idea
what to expect when an entire team was finally assembled.Now Keith
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, they are two wins away from playing for the Stanley
Cup.The best story in sports got even better Wednesday night on the Las Vegas
Strip, where the Golden Knights continued their improbable run toward the Cup
final with a 4-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets. Before a raucous crowd of 18,477
newly minted hockey fans, the expansion team like no other won a second straight
against the Jets to take a 2-1 lead in the Western Conference final.As much as
500-1 to win the Stanley Cup in this gambling city’s sports books when the
season began, the players that like to refer to themselves as the Golden Misfits
are now incredibly the odds-on favorites to win it all.In a city built on
losers, the first major pro franchise could be the winner no one expected – even
the players cast off from their former teams.Misfits, they’re not. But many of
them had never even met before last summer’s expansion draft, and now they’re on
the brink of the Stanley Cup finals.”I don’t think anyone saw us here,” said
Marc Andre Fleury, the three-time Stanley Cup winner who was left unprotected in
the expansion draft by Pittsburgh. ”I’m really proud to be part of this
season.”On a night when Fleury made one spectacular save after another, the
Knights were just good enough to take the advantage in the series. They held
onto a one-goal advantage most of the third period, despite being outplayed and
outshot by the Jets.The grudges they once held against their former teams are
gone. But they’ve played the entire season with a chip on their shoulders after
being judged expendable by their former employers.”We all came here with the
right mindset,” said James Neal, who had a goal and an assist in the win. ”No
one likes to be left unprotected.”That the Knights were competitive in their
first season wasn’t a total surprise. The NHL set up the expansion draft so
teams couldn’t hold onto all of their top players, and the Knights wasted no
time in making Fleury the backbone of the new team.What did surprise a lot of
people in hockey was that general manager George McPhee nailed just the right
combination of speed up front to go with the stellar goalkeeping. And so far
they’ve held their own speed-wise in the series against the Jets, a team built
on speed itself.”They’re a quick team Authentic
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, for sure,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said.
”When we’re fast we look faster, too. It’s the ebb and flow of the game.”The
Knights are not only the hottest ticket on the Strip, but the hottest thing in a
city of 2 million. Las Vegans have embraced their first major pro franchise and
opposing players often talk about the atmosphere inside the T-Mobile Arena.Away
from the arena it’s more of the same. Golden Knights merchandise is everywhere
in the city and hundreds of fans show up just to watch practice at the team’s
facility in the suburbs. Homegrown baseball hero Bryce Harper is such a big fan
he has bats with Golden Knights logos, and singer Carrie Underwood offered (it
was declined) to sing the national anthem after her Nashville Predators were
eliminated.And if the Jets drove past Caesars Palace on their way to the game
they might have noticed the statue of Caesar was holding a Knights hockey
stick.Fleury, who made spectacular back-to-back saves that left him sprawled
across the ice while the Knights were clinging to a 3-2 lead in the third
period, was asked after what he would have thought before the season if someone
told him the team would be within two wins of the Stanley Cup finals.”Probably
laugh a little bit,” he said.No one is laughing now as the Knights try and make
history as an expansion team turned Stanley Cup champion. The team has defied
the odds since the opening game of the season, and bookies are having a hard
time finding anyone to bet against them now.They were Vegas Strong, starting the
season just after the murderous Oct. 1 rampage just down the street from the
arena that took 58 lives in the worst mass shooting ever in the U.S. They became
Vegas Born, which has resonated in a city where so many people are from
elsewhere.Call them what you want. But soon you may be calling them Stanley Cup
champions.”We’re just a bunch of hockey players that wanted to find a home,”
Jonathan Marchessault said a few games ago. ”And we did.”—-Tim Dahlberg is a
national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at
tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg History is being made
again in the Stanley Cup playoffs.On the heels of the first back-to-back
champions in two decades, the NHL will get a new champion in the salary-cap era
that began in 2005. Among the Lightning, Capitals, Jets and Golden Knights, only
Tampa Bay has won the Stanley Cup Vincent
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, making this the first time the final four teams
have combined for one title or fewer.Tampa Bay is in the Eastern Conference
final for the third time in four years, and Washington has made the playoffs 10
out of the past 11 seasons. Yet after one of Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles and
Pittsburgh lifted the Cup every time since 2009, this crop of new blood is
refreshing.”They’re all good stories,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. ”The
same old story sometimes can get old. Once in a while a new chapter is written,
and it’ll be good. This year there will be a new chapter.”The next chapter
begins with the Capitals visiting the Lightning on Friday night, followed by the
Golden Knights at Winnipeg on Saturday night. It’s a full turnover from the
final four teams last year: Pittsburgh, Ottawa, Nashville and Anaheim.The Jets
became the fourth and final team to reach the third round when they beat the
defending Western Conference-champion Predators on the road in Game 7 on
Thursday night. Winnipeg is the final hope for Canada’s first Cup celebration
since Montreal in 1993 and is in the conference final for the first time in
franchise history.”Having some diversity amongst the league is great, and I
think it just shows the competitive balance throughout the league,” Jets captain
Blake Wheeler said. ”Having good young players is a great place to start and you
see that the teams that have good young players have gotten good fast. So I
think it’s a good thing to have some fan bases have some extended postseason
success. It just creates a better vibe.”The Lightning are trying to create the
vibe Hockey Bay hasn’t seen since winning the Cup in 2004. They fell short in a
six-game loss to the Blackhawks in the 2015 final with this core, led by Steven
Stamkos and Victor Hedman.Even after missing the playoffs last year when Stamkos
was out long term with a knee injury, Tampa Bay has plenty of recent playoff
experience from recent runs and the additions of ex-Rangers players Ryan
McDonagh, Dan Girardi and J.T. Miller.”We’ve been here in this situation
before,” Stamkos said. ”There’s no panic or nervousness. We’re excited.”Vegas
hasn’t been in any situation before Adrian
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, building off the best inaugural season in NHL
history by beating Los Angeles and San Jose to reach the West final. Among the
four good stories remaining, none is as remarkable as the Golden Knights, who
pieced together players from around the league to get further than anyone
expected.”I haven’t been around a team like this,” general manager George McPhee
said. ”This feels like more of a team than any team I’ve ever been with at the
NHL level.”McPhee’s former team in Washington has the same feeling. The Capitals
aren’t as deep or talented as in years past, but they’re in the East final for
the first time since 1998, when McPhee was in his first season as their GM.”I’ve
had some teams that have been very, very talented and they weren’t necessarily
the best teams,” said Trotz, who is in the third round for the first time in 19
years as an NHL head coach. ”I think the belief in the group, or the chemistry
in the group, is the intangible and this group has a good chemistry about
it.”What excites Jets coach Paul Maurice most about the fresh teams in the
conference finals is the hope it keeps alive in the remaining cities. And each
one can legitimately believe its team has a chance to win it all.”That’s the
great part about competition,” Maurice said. ”So that’s what’s the most exciting
thing is you don’t know, right? There’s not a five-time Stanley Cup champion
that’s just ran the first two series 4-0. It’s up for grabs. It’s right
there.”—AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tennessee,
contributed.—
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