‘This is not the end’: Golden Knights’ historic season continues with playoff berth

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When the Vegas Golden Knights took the ice for their first regular season NHL game on Oct. 6, no one expected them to be playing hockey beyond April 7. Certainly not me.

A first-year expansion franchise thrown together with the castoffs of the other 30 NHL teams? How could they come together so quickly in Year 1 and be one of the top teams in their division and conference?

Well, the unthinkable happened on Monday night when the Golden Knights clinched a playoff spot with six games to play. At 103 points, they’re also still in the running for the Presidents’ Trophy.

The belief was that when the February trade deadline arrived, general manager George McPhee would be trading away players like James Neal, David Perron and Jonathan Marchessault, who were pending unrestricted free agents. But a funny thing happened: Vegas started winning. They were 8-3-0 in October and 7-5-1 in November when injuries forced them to rely on Maxime Lagace, Malcolm Subban and Dylan Ferguson as Marc-Andre Fleury missed time due to a concussion.

By the start of 2018, the Golden Knights had the second-most points in the NHL with 54 (26-9-2). The “Vegas Flu” intensified as the trip to T-Mobile Arena pretty much turned in an automatic dropped two points for most teams.

Golden Knights owner Bill Foley’s plan — playoffs in three years, Stanley Cup in six — had changed drastically. This expansion team was experiencing something special, and as more and more fans in Vegas got on board, it was clear they would no longer be sellers at the trade deadline. Marchessault was extended and Tomas Tatar and Ryan Reaves were acquired. A playoff berth had become an inevitability and McPhee was going to strengthen his team.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

They were a team of players that the other 30 clubs didn’t want. That’s how the bonds quickly formed and the chemistry from off the ice began to translate on to it.

“Not one of us were protected [in expansion draft] so it was kind of a feeling like ‘Alright, we’re in this together. Let’s make sure we show everybody else that they made a mistake,’” forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare told PHT in October.

The results? Historic and memorable. There’s William Karlsson, who has 40 goals after scoring six for the Columbus Blue Jackets last season. Marchessault and Reilly Smith were deemed expendable by the Florida Panthers and have combined for 47 goals this season. Marc-Andre Fleury left the only organization he’d ever known in the Pittsburgh Penguins to become the face of this Vegas franchise. He’s shown through 43 starts he has plenty left to give and his .935 even strength save percentage is second among all NHL goaltenders with at least 40 starts.

Via the NHL, here are some historical notes regarding Vegas making the playoffs:

• Third expansion team since 1968-69 – and first to start from scratch – to clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In 1979-80, the Hartford Whalers and Edmonton Oilers each reached the postseason after joining the NHL from the World Hockey Association.

• In addition to the Golden Knights, Oilers and Whalers, only four other expansion clubs from any of the four North American professional sports leagues qualified for the playoffs.

• The four other expansion clubs to reach the playoffs – all from the NBA – are the 1966-67 Chicago Bulls, 1976-77 Denver Nuggets, 1976-77 San Antonio Spurs and 2002-03 New Orleans Hornets. The Nuggets and Spurs joined from the defunct American Basketball Association, while the newly-formed Bulls were part of an eight-team playoff bracket in a 10-team league. The Hornets, meanwhile, relocated from Charlotte but are considered an expansion franchise by the NBA.

• Among clubs to join the NHL in the past 27 years, three clinched their first postseason berth in their third season: Sharks in 1993-94, Panthers in 1995-96 and Wild in 2002-03. All three won their first series, with Minnesota reaching the Conference Finals and Florida advancing to the Stanley Cup Final.

(This all really makes the Vadim Shipachyov saga feel like it was ages ago.)

To use a term heard regularly in Vegas, the Golden Knights are playing with ‘house money.’ No one expected this, so why not take a run at the Stanley Cup in their inaugural year? If they come up short, there’s still a lot to be proud of, and the excitement surrounding the team and how the community has embraced the franchise — especially in light of the tragic shooting in early October — will go a long way in cementing a foundation for years to come.

The plan has been altered, but in a good way.

“It’s been an amazing season so far,” Foley told the Las Vegas Review-Journal Monday night. “But this is not the end. And this is not the beginning of the end. But it is the end of the beginning.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.