SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — The crew of castoffs that carried the expansion Vegas Golden Knights to a division title and two rounds of playoffs wins in a reality-defying season are more than just a feel-good story.
They’ve proven themselves to be legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
Marc-Andre Fleury was his usual brilliant self with 28 saves in his fourth shutout of the postseason and Vegas benefited from a couple of fortunate bounces to advance to the Western Conference Final with a 3-0 victory over the San Jose Sharks on Sunday.
“It’s a bit crazy thinking about it for sure,” defenseman Brayden McNabb said. “But we’re here to win. We’re not going to get caught up in we shouldn’t be here or whatever. We’re here to win.”
The Golden Knights have done that all season despite being thrown together at the expansion draft last June among players deemed expendable by their former teams. They won eight of nine games to open the season to take the league by a bit of shock, posted 109 points to win a Pacific Division filled with playoff-tested teams and then gone 8-2 in the playoffs with a first-round sweep against Los Angeles and a six-game series win over the Sharks.
They became just the third team in NHL history to win multiple series in its first season. The Toronto Arenas won the Stanley Cup in the first postseason in league history in 1918 and St. Louis won two rounds to win the all-expansion West Division in 1968.
Next up for Vegas is the Western Conference Final against either Winnipeg or Nashville. The Jets lead that series 3-2 heading into Game 6 at home on Monday night.
While the Golden Knights got help from a couple of shots that hit the iron and went out for San Jose and one that went off the post and into the net for a goal by Nate Schmidt that was only detectable on replay, the recipe for success has been speed, tenacity and depth more than luck.
“We made ourselves a good team,” Fleury said. “We had great chemistry right from the start. We keep improving throughout the season. I feel like we’re using everybody in the lineup to get wins. That’s what’s made us successful.”
Fleury has been a big part of that, capped by his fourth career series-clinching shutout, one shy of Chris Osgood’s NHL record.
Fleury allowed just three goals in the sweep against the Kings, posted shutouts in the opening and closing games against San Jose and was brilliant in an overtime win in Game 3 over the Sharks.
But he has had plenty of help. William Karlsson scored 43 goals in the regular season and had the overtime winner in Game 3 of this series. Jonathan Marchessault is tied for the team lead with 11 points this postseason, including the first goal in the clincher against the Sharks. Even the fourth line played a big role Sunday by controlling the puck and hemming San Jose in the defensive zone.
“We’re having a lot of fun in this room,” Schmidt said. “″The guys have just been having a blast all year with each other. I think that we’ve done a lot more than we thought we were capable of, but we continue to set the bar to new heights with our group. We continue to just set new expectations for yourself. This group believes in each other and that’s more than anything you can ask for.”
The Golden Knights took control of this game with some good fortune in the second period. It started when usually reliable Marc-Edouard Vlasic turned the puck over in his own zone. Reilly Smith took control near the blue line and found Marchessault alone in front for a goal that trickled between Martin Jones’ pads.
The Golden Knights then added to the lead after an icing by Brent Burns led to an offensive zone faceoff. David Perron beat Tierney on the draw and Schmidt took a shot that appeared to deflect off the post and out.
Play went on for 25 more seconds before the buzzer rang, with the situation room in Toronto calling for a video review. That quickly showed that the puck bounced off the post, off a piece equipment inside the net and out.
Vegas then had a delayed celebration for the goal that made it 2-0.
That was the type of bounce the Sharks didn’t get early in the game when they hit the post or crossbar three times in the opening period and then again in the third when they tried to cut into Vegas’ lead.
“It’s a fine line,” coach Peter DeBoer said. “I think we had a couple of those that didn’t go in. That’s hockey. But Vegas deserves to be moving on. They played great. They finished the chances when they needed to and got saves when they needed to.”