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

————

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.

WATCH LIVE: Vegas eyes Stanley Cup Final berth with Game 5 win

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Game 5: Vegas Golden Knights at Winnipeg Jets, 3 p.m. ET (Golden Knights lead series 3-1)
NBC
Call: Kenny Albert, Joe Micheletti, Brian Boucher
• Stream here
Series preview

• Fleury, secondary scoring biggest issues facing Jets
Nate Schmidt is underrated star of Golden Knights
These playoffs belong to Marc-Andre Fleury
Jonathan Marchessault, Golden Knights enjoying lucky Lamborghini

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

WATCH LIVE: Golden Knights, Jets battle in Game 4

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Game 4: Winnipeg Jets at Vegas Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (Golden Knights lead series 2-1)
NBCSN
Call: Kenny Albert, Joe Micheletti, Brian Boucher
• Stream here
Series preview

• Fleury, secondary scoring biggest issues facing Jets
Nate Schmidt is underrated star of Golden Knights
These playoffs belong to Marc-Andre Fleury
Dustin Byfuglien keeps finding new ways to show his absurd strength (Video)
Jets’ Ehlers expected to be available for Game 4
Jonathan Marchessault, Golden Knights enjoying lucky Lamborghini

Cheveldayoff, McPhee, Yzerman are 2018 GM of the Year finalists
Conn Smythe Power Rankings: Scheifele, Marchessault make their case

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

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Strangest moments in playoff history; Jagr isn’t done yet

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Washington National slugger Bryce Harper gets more nervous watching Golden Knights games than he does playing baseball. (USA Today)

Brad Marchand‘s decision to lick an opponent was one of the weirdest moments in playoff history, so Adam Gretz looked at other strange moments that occurred in the postseason. (Yard Barker)

• Amanda Kraus Wilson is a Capitals fan that moved from Virginia to Rochester after she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. On a positive note, Wilson was cleared to fly back to Washington to catch Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning. She even got a special jersey signed by some of the players. (Washington Post)

• The NWHL has decided to expand to the great state of Minnesota. “Minnesota is an essential part of women’s hockey in North America. When you consider all of the talented players in this area and the passion this community has for the game, the Whitecaps are going to be incredible on and off the ice,” commissioner Dani Rylan said. (NWHL.Zone)

• Former Montreal Canadiens forward David Desharnais has reportedly agreed to play in the KHL next season. (Montreal Gazette)

• 46-year-old forward Jaromir Jagr isn’t ready to hang up his skates just yet. He’s signed a new one-year deal with HC Kladno. Yes, he’s the owner of the team. (BarDown)

Nate Schmidt went from being a healthy scratch in the playoffs last season to being one of Vegas’ most important blue liners this year. (NHL.com)

• Check out this Q&A with NBC Sports broadcaster Kenny Albert, who talks about why Ovechkin is finally getting his big moment in the playoffs. (New York Post)

• Through two games, the Winnipeg Jets have been able to get shots on Marc-Andre Fleury from in close, but that wasn’t enough to give them a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference Final. (Sinbin.Vegas)

• The Jets won some big games on the road in the second round and they’ll probably have to do that again if in Vegas if they want to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. (Winnipeg Sun)

• TSN’s Scott Cullen looks at what the Chicago Blackhawks have to do during the offseason to be successful in 2018-19. (TSN.ca)

• Up top, check out the highlights from last night’s game between the Capitals and Lightning.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.