Golden Knights enjoying ride to Stanley Cup Final, but remain unsatisfied

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When the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Eastern Conference Final in 2008, captain Sidney Crosby and his teammates decided to stick to superstition and not touch the Prince of Wales Trophy. It didn’t work as they fell to the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final. A year later, as well as in 2016 and 2017, they put their mitts all over it and success followed in those Cup Finals.

So after the Vegas Golden Knights defeated the Winnipeg Jets 2-1 to claim the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl in their first year of existence, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who was a part of those Penguins teams, told de-facto captain Deryk Engelland to pick up the trophy.

This entire Golden Knights season has been unbelievable, so might as well tell superstition to be damned, right?

***

The ride continues for the “Vegas Golden Misfits,” as they so affectionately have dubbed themselves. It’s May 20, 2018 and an expansion franchise will be competing for the Stanley Cup within the week. No one saw this coming. Not after the expansion draft last June. Not after the team finally started playing together during training camp. Not even after their hot start in October.

When did the Golden Knights starts believing this year could be something special?

“I think once we hit Christmas we had the belief in the room,” Vegas defenseman Nate Schmidt told NBCSN afterward. “We knew we had the guys, it was whether or not we could continue to do it. We believed that we could do that. We believed in that room, all the guys it took, and however many lineup changes, that we had the guys in there that could pull something like this off.”

[Golden Knights’ incredible run continues to Stanley Cup Final]

Head coach Gerard Gallant started to believe during a back-to-back road trip to Nashville and Dallas in early December. 

A 2-0 lead against the Predators on Dec. 8 evaporated with Nashville firing off three straight and taking the lead with 5:04 to play. Doubting Vegas would be a mistake all season, which explains Erik Haula tying the game with 40 seconds to play and Reilly Smith winning it in the sixth round of the shootout. The following night was another tough win, with the Stars keeping things tight until the very end and the Golden Knights coming out on top 5-3.

“We come out of those games, we outplayed both of those teams, played great hockey,” Gallant said. “That’s when I said to myself, this is a special team, the character on this team, they believe they can beat anybody. Going into those two buildings at that time was a big, big boost for us. It was a confidence builder for me, too.”

Those two victories were part of an 11-1-1 month to close out 2017 as the questioned about the Golden Knights’ legitimacy began to disappear.

***

“There’s no partying with me,” Gallant said after Game 5 when asked if he’s going to celebrate this accomplishment.

The quest isn’t over. The Vegas Golden Knights have evolved from bunch of expansion “misfits” to a nice story to a playoff team to a legit Stanley Cup contender over the course of six months. No one saw this coming, but the players inside the dressing room developed a belief over that period of time and that belief has manifested in reality. 

Vegas will now have a few days off as they await the winner of the Eastern Conference Final between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals. After 82 regular season games and 15 playoff games, it’s time for some rest as the mission is far from accomplished.

“It’s been an awesome ride so far. We’ve won three series. We’re going to the Stanley Cup Final, but this isn’t what we want,” Gallant said. “We want to win.”

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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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.

PHT’s Three Stars: Reaves’ goal helps Golden Knights reach Cup Final

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1st Star: Ryan Reaves, Vegas Golden Knights

A year ago, “Ryan Reaves scored the goal that helped send the Vegas Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Final” is totally the sentence we all expected to read in May 2018. Well, here we are after Vegas eliminated the Winnipeg Jets in Game 5 with a 2-1 victory.

2nd Star: Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights

Fleury continued his march toward the Conn Smythe trophy with a 31-save effort as he helped ensure his chance to win a third straight Stanley Cup.

[Golden Knights’ incredible run continues to Stanley Cup Final]

3rd Star: Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets

After a tough couple of games, Hellebuyck did all he could to keep the Jets in Game 5. He finished with 30 saves, including  a pair late in the third period that helped keep the Jets’ deficit to one goal.

Highlight of the Day:

Thank you, Deryk Engelland, for touching the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl:

Factoid of the Day:

Monday’s schedule: Tampa Bay Lightning at Washington Capitals, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Lightning lead series 3-2)

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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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.

Vegas looks to continue fairy tale with conference title

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Just saying the Vegas Golden Knights are one win away from advancing to the Stanley Cup Final has a magical ring to it.

But what’s even more mystical is thinking the Knights are a mere five wins from hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup in its inaugural season.

Five more wins, over a potential 10 games.

And while this might be a first-year team writing a fantastical Hollywood screenplay nobody could’ve scripted last summer when the roster was constructed, the NHL playoffs are nothing new to a core of characters in this cast.

Everybody knows about three-time Stanley Cup champion Marc-Andre Fleury, a key figure during Pittsburgh’s reign the last two years, and 10-year veteran James Neal, who was with Nashville for last year’s run to the final against the Penguins.

But between guys such as David Perron, Luca Sbisa, Deryk Engelland, Ryan Reaves, Reilly Smith, Cody Eakin and Tomas Tatar, the Golden Knights aren’t as new to the playoffs as people may believe.

The players’ individual postseason pedigree could be part of the reason the team is one game from clinching the Western Conference. Another reason is the eagerness of Fleury and Neal’s co-stars in this feel-good story.

”We don’t see ourselves as an expansion team for a long time now,” said Perron, a 13-year veteran who is playing in his seventh postseason. ”But at the same time, it’s always nice to keep proving people wrong and we know that even at this point, I don’t feel like people believe we’ll close it out. So, we’ve got to find a way.”

Coach Gerard Gallant has shown he has confidence in all his players, as they’ve all experienced pressure situations and performed well in all three round of the playoffs, including seven one-goal games. Not including Fleury’s 129 career playoff games, or Neal’s 94, the players who skated in Friday night’s 3-2 Game 4 victory now have a combined 489 games of postseason experience to their credit.

”It’s not new for those guys, I don’t think you get here if you don’t use your hockey players,” Gallant said. ”We’ve done it from Day One and there’s no reason not to use them because everybody competes, everybody battles and everybody’s a part of our team. That’s what we do. Guys work hard and compete hard and do your job and you’ll play. I feel comfortable putting most of our guys on the ice. There’s no issues there.”

And that’s because the Golden Knights have always done a good job of living in the moment, and not looking past each game.

Erik Haula spent his first four seasons in Minnesota and went to the playoffs every year, but it didn’t take long for him to realize he was with a special group of players.

”We got off to a great start, won two on the road (to open the season),” said Haula, who has three goals and four assists in the postseason. ”Right after that first home game, that was special. It was a special night for the whole community. Right there, I think we came together as a community, as a team. We never looked back. We just kept going.

”We just have a close group. We respect every single person in here. We need every single person in here.”

Luca Sbisa has been in the league nine years and been to the postseason five times. His presence on defense has bolstered the crew on the blueline, helping to neutralize Winnipeg’s depth on offense.

”Coming in I just wanted to help this team and do what I could, especially on the ice,” said Sbisa, who went to the playoffs in four of the five seasons he was with Anaheim. ”I wanted to give our team a chance to win every night and here we are. We can’t look too far ahead, you gotta take it one game at a time. If you think about the next game you’re probably going to shoot yourself in the foot. We just have to find the balance of being aggressive and being smart. It’s been a long and fun ride so far.”

The fun continues Sunday, when the Jets host Game 5 and will look to stay alive against the fairy tale Knights from Vegas.

”I would say that winning and having fun go hand-in-hand,” said Eakin, now in his seventh year and playing in his third postseason. ”I’ve been on a few teams that have been pretty good, won a few times. We know we got to play our best hockey. Especially this time of year, there’s not a team that is going to roll over and die.”

Nate Schmidt is underrated star of Golden Knights

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When it comes to the success of the Vegas Golden Knights the lion’s share of the praise is being thrown in the direction of starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and the top-line of Jon Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith. All of it, of course, is richly deserved. All four of them have been incredible all season and have arguably been even better in the playoffs. Other than the emergence of Karlsson — which is still kind of baffling — there was reason to believe that the quartet could make a positive impact immediately.

Fleury has been a No. 1 goalie in the league for more than a decade. His name is on the Stanley Cup three times. Everybody knew he was going to give them a chance to at least be competitive on most nights. Maybe we didn’t think he would be quite this dominant, but he has been good, is good, and will continue to be good. Likewise, pretty much everyone knew right away that the Jon Marchessault/Reilly Smith move had a chance to backfire on the Florida Panthers. Marchessault scored 30 goals last year! Smith has been a 50-point player in the NHL! It is not like their success this year is totally out of nowhere.

But perhaps the biggest actual surprise with this team has been the fact that the defense has been really, really good.

[Related: Deryk Engelland completely reinvented himself with Golden Knights]

Leading the way on that front has been former Washington Capitals defenseman Nate Schmidt who has finally had an opportunity to shine as a top-pairing defender.

It’s not that Schmidt wasn’t a useful player in Washington, because he was. He probably deserved more playing time than he was getting. He showed some offensive ability, he was consistently a positive possession player, and he always seemed to make an impact when he was in the lineup and on the ice. The problem was that he was playing for a team that was winning the Presidents’ Trophy every year, had a really good defense in place, and had invested a ton of assets in the players ahead of him on the depth chart, most of whom were really productive. The argument could be made that he maybe could have (should have?) been used a little more and players like Brooks Orpik and Karl Alzner a little less, but those were great Capitals teams and there’s only so much ice-time to go around.

He was a good young player that was blocked on a good team. It happens.

When it came time for the expansion draft this past June the Capitals were one of the teams that was stuck between a rock and a hard place and was going to became a victim of their own success.

While some teams (*cough* … Florida … Minnesota … St. Louis … *cough*) either paid through the nose to protect certain players, or just flat out made bizarre choices on their protected lists, there truly were some teams that were just going to lose somebody really good and there was nothing they were going to be able to do to change that.

The Capitals were one of those teams as they had no choice but to leave players like Schmidt and Philipp Grubauer unprotected, either of which would have been an excellent selection for Vegas. It is not like the players they did protect were controversial, either. Of course Braden Holtby was going to be their protected goalie. You can’t blame them for protecting John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, and Dmitry Orlov as their three defenders. They could not have gone with the eight skaters route and protected an additional defender because that would have left a top forward exposed.

It’s not like they protected Orpik or Taylor Chorney over Schmidt, or traded Andre Burakovsky and a first-round pick to keep Vegas from taking him.

They didn’t do anything stupid. They just accepted one player was leaving and let him go.

That player turned out to be Schmidt.

Joining a Vegas team that was starting from scratch the 26-year-old finally had a chance to do something he never could in Washington — get a real, honest look as a top-pairing defender.

He has excelled in that role.

[Conn Smythe Trophy Power Rankings: Scheifele, Marchessault make their case]

During the regular season no skater played more minutes during the regular season than Schmidt. He played close to 19 minutes per night in even-strength situations (nearly two more minutes than any other player on the team). He played on the power play. He played on the penalty kill. He recorded a very respectable 36 points from the back end (25 of them coming at even-strength, most among the team’s defenders) and was once again a positive possession player despite starting more of his shifts in the defensive zone than any other player on the team. He played big minutes and did a ton of the heavy lifting on the blue line.

In the playoffs, his game seems to have reached yet another level.

He is taking on an even bigger workload, already has six points in the first 13 games (most among Vegas defenders), has helped Vegas to a 12-5 goal differential when he is on the ice during 5-on-5 play, and despite playing 24 minutes a night against the oppositions best players has taken just a single minor penalty.

He is doing everything in what is one of the most critical roles for a team.

Given what is going on around him with the play of Fleury and Marchessault it is understandable that his impact is taking a bit of a backseat and is getting overlooked.

Goaltending is a difference-maker, especially in the playoffs, and Fleury is playing out of his mind right now. Goal-scoring and points will always get noticed over a quiet, steady impact from a defender.

None of that should take away from just how important Schmidt has been for Vegas and how big of a role he is going to continue to play for them as one of the building blocks on their defense.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Deryk Engelland completely reinvented himself with Golden Knights

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Just about everything that has happened with the Vegas Golden Knights this season has been better than expected. Some of it has been shocking. Some of it does not make any sense.

Even when you take into account the bad decisions several of the league’s general managers made in the expansion draft process, this has still been a team full of players having career years and exceeding expectations, carrying a first-year team to the Western Conference Final (Game 1, 7 p.m. ET on NBC).

The biggest surprise has obviously been the emergence of William Karlsson, 40-goal scorer, a performance that nobody should have or could have seen coming. 

But right behind him in the “how is this happening?” discussion might be the development of the team’s blue line, which probably seemed to be the weakest part of the roster when it was initially selected back in June. There was some potential to be sure thanks to players like Shea Theodore (a first-round pick by Anaheim in 2013), Nate Schmidt and Colin Miller, all of whom have made a significant impact this season and through the first two rounds of the playoffs.

But none of them have been a more pleasant surprise than 36-year-old defenseman Deryk Engelland.

Engelland has become one of the faces of the franchise for a couple of reasons, not all of them related to just what he is doing as a player. Not only was he resident of the city for more than a decade when the team selected him in the expansion draft, but he actually played hockey in the city more than a decade ago as a member of the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers. Before the team’s home opener he delivered an emotional speech in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting in early October, and then followed it up by scoring one of the team’s first goals that night.

He has been a fan favorite and a leader on and off the ice from the very beginning.

He has not stopped making an impact all year and has not only been a surprisingly strong part of the team’s blue line, he has done so by completely redefining what he is as a player.

For the first part of Engelland’s NHL career he was primarily hired muscle. Not necessarily a pure enforcer in the sense that his only role or ability was to fight, but he was mostly a part-time player that would rarely play more than 13 or 14 minutes per game as a sixth or seventh defenseman, he would drop the gloves when needed or challenged, and mostly made a living throwing his weight around playing a physical brand of hockey. That is what he did. That is what he was viewed as.

He did that for parts of five seasons as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins before becoming a free agent prior to the 2014-15 season. It was at that point that he signed a three-year contract with the Calgary Flames worth just shy of $3 million per season, resulting in one of the more memorable Tweets in NHL free agency (“That’s per year”), a shocking and seemingly excessive amount of money for a player with his resume at that time.

What stands out about his performance in Vegas is just how different all of it is from his days in Pittsburgh and Calgary.

Take a look at some numbers throughout his career.

Some observations:

— Instead of being a bottom-pairing defender that barely played when he was given a jersey, he ended up being a 20-minute per night defender during the regular season. The only skater on the Golden Knights that played more minutes than Engelland’s 1,602 this season was Schmidt (1,690).

— He went from being a player that would routinely fight to a player that did not fight one time all season, the first time in his professional hockey career he went an entire regular season without fighting.

— He was credited with fewer hits per minute than at any point in his NHL career, and by a pretty significant margin, meaning his game wasn’t just about “finishing checks” and playing physical.

— When you take into account how much more ice time he received this season, he took fewer minor penalties than at any point in his career.

— Oh, and he also set career highs in goals, assists, and points.

While he has yet to record a point in the playoffs for the Golden Knights, he has ended up playing even more minutes than he did during the regular season (23 per game) and is playing on the team’s top-pairing alongside Theodore, a duo that has a 56 percent shot attempt share during 5-on-5 play and has only been on the ice for three goals against in more than 150 minutes of hockey (via Natural Stat Trick).

There were some signs over the past couple of years in Calgary that his career was maybe trending in this direction (at least in terms of his ice-time and declining hit totals), but things just completely accelerated this season in Vegas.

That it happened in his mid-30s after eight years in the NHL is what makes it so surprising. Players do not usually change that much at this point.

And that is kind of what makes Engelland kind of a perfect representation for what this Golden Knights team is all about.

A player that got a bigger opportunity than he had ever been given before, maybe with something to prove, and then used all of that to put together a career-best season that exceeded every expectation that had ever surrounded him in his career.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• PHT 2018 Conference Finals Roundtable
• PHT predicts NHL’s Conference Finals
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.