It’s time to go all in with Vegas

Las Vegas has this strange way of capturing people’s minds.

It’s a city that beckons you from far away and then when it grabs hold of you, it makes you want to keep coming back.

Now its hockey team, the Golden Knights, is doing that same thing to fans across the country.

What started off as kind of a fun story at the start of the season with an expansion team finding success remarkably quickly has become arguably the biggest story in professional sports this year. Yeah, the Super Bowl was great with the Eagles taking down New England, the villains of the NFL, and Loyola-Chicago’s magical run to the Final Four was a fun ride. But the Knights are different.

Nobody thought they’d make it this far, four wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup. Vegas is a place where people go to start things over and that’s basically what the Knights’ roster is made up of. Players who were cast aside by other teams, some because of their contracts but mostly it was because they didn’t fit in anymore. Well, Vegas ended up being the perfect fit for them with some skaters like William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault using the city to showcase their talents with impressive seasons. Others, like goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, are proving the doubters wrong. Fleury, the most recognizable name on the Knights’ roster, won three Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh, including one in 2009 over the Red Wings, but he eventually lost his starting role to Matt Murray and people were beginning to wonder if this was starting to be the end of Fleury’s career. Instead, he shut up the haters quickly and so far in the playoffs, he has an eye-popping 1.68 goals against average. If he keeps it up a little while longer, he should be hoisting the Conn Smythe Trophy (Playoff MVP) at the end, maybe even if Vegas doesn’t win the Cup.

So far in the playoffs, the Knights have dispatched two teams, Los Angeles and San Jose, that have been perpetual Cup contenders the last few years, and then took down Winnipeg, a very good team, in remarkably fast fashion. As a result of the Jets’ loss, it’s now been 25 years since our neighbors to the north have won a Cup (O Canada!). Each round, you’d think this would be the one where the lever gets jammed on the Knights’ slot machine, but it’s still paying out.

Now the Knights get Washington, the NHL’s choke artists. The Capitals have taken playoff underachievement and turned it into an art form. Ever since star forward and future Hall of Famer Alex Ovechkin made his appearance in Washington, people have wondered if this would be the year for the Caps to end the city’s title drought, but it never happens. It’s become a cliche with them, but this could seriously be the season Washington pulls it off, not just because it’s in the Finals, but because the Caps finally got past the “rival” Penguins in the playoffs. Once it got past Pittsburgh, people start to believe in Washington. The team of course, not the city.

The Caps have one more hurdle though and that isn’t Vegas. It’s Fleury. During their frequent early playoff exits at the hands of the Penguins, Fleury was Washington’s nemesis and despite all their offensive firepower, the Caps couldn’t solve the veteran netminder. As soon as Fleury left Pittsburgh, Washington got past the Penguins. But now it must beat him to get that elusive championship. It’s a great script if you’re a Capitals fan. You defeat the team that has made you look foolish almost every season and now you have the chance win the title against the last guy who has been standing in your way. It’s almost perfect.

The key word is “almost” though. Washington’s success has been nice and in any other year, this would be the Caps’ time to carry the puck down Pennsylvania Avenue (or whatever street the parade will travel down).

They’ve got a potent offense, a goalie in Braden Holtby who seems to be peaking right now and they managed not to get caught having eight players on the ice in a game against Tampa Bay in the last round. If you can get away with something that obvious, it should be your time to win a title.

But it’s not. Things have gone the Knights’ way all season and that streak doesn’t appear to be coming to an end. They’re scoring effectively, Fleury has been sharp and they’re winning close games, not just blowouts. Vegas is doing everything right and even though that’s not something that comes to mind when you think of Sin City, it’s a sign that good things will happen for the Knights.

The Capitals may have the better team overall, but they’ll have to win at least twice in the Knights’ house to win their first Cup.

And in Vegas, the House always wins.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.