In my years of watching sport, I’ve seen a lot of incredible things.
I’ve seen Brawn Grand Prix emerge from the ashes of Honda and win both Formula One championships in their only year of competition. I’ve seen Lewis Hamilton win the World Championship on the last corner of the last race of the season. I’ve seen Toyota retire from the lead of the Le Mans 24 hours with barely five minutes to go. I was watching when the Patriots came back from a 25 point deficit to win Super Bowl LI.
But what has been going on in the National Hockey League this season, with the remarkable Vegas Golden Knights, perhaps surpasses everything. At the time of writing, there’s every indication that the story could become yet more extraordinary.
The Vegas Golden Knights became the 31st team in the NHL, and started play in October. Their roster had been formed through an expansion draft, whereby they could select one player from each of the other teams that had not been protected. They were, in essence, cast-offs. Players who had never lived up to expectations previously, or aging players who were perceived to be past their prime were among those selected.
Other teams even struck deals with Vegas, offering the team draft picks if they chose one player over another they considered more valuable.
There were some exceptions, of course. Marc-Andre Fleury, a three time Stanley Cup Champion with the Pittsburgh Penguins, was expected to be the cornerstone of the franchise. The Penguins would’ve liked to have kept Fleury, but elected to keep their younger goal tender instead.
The general consensus was this: the Vegas Golden Knights, with this roster, was a team that was going nowhere fast. Expectations were low - pundits predicted them to be one of the worst teams in the league, a doormat for the other 30 teams to wipe their feet on. Indeed, even within the team, expectations were modest. The General Manager publicly declared a target of making the playoffs within three years, and winning the Stanley Cup in six.
Nobody had any idea of just how wrong they would turn out to be.
Immediately prior to the start of the season, Vegas, and America as a whole, was rocked by the deadliest mass shooting in the country’s history. Stephen Paddock opened fire on concert goers, killing 58 and injuring over 400.
Days later, at the team’s very first home game, Deryk Engelland – a resident of Las Vegas and defenceman on the team – gave a moving speech to the crowd of over 18,000 people prior to the start of the game.
“To the families and friends of the victims, we'll do everything we can to help you and our city heal. We are Vegas Strong," he concluded.
Engelland would go on to score a goal in that game, as the Golden Knights recorded their first ever win with a score of 5-2 over the Arizona Coyotes. From that point on, the Knights took off.
Was it the shooting that gave the team extra motivation to win? It was a theory that was regularly posted on social media and messages boards, even as the team surged to 15 wins in their first 22 games – a new record in the NHL.
The expectation – that again – was that they would eventually return to normal form soon enough. It was only a matter of time before reality set in.
In fact, the reality became that the Vegas Golden Knights were good. Really good. Through the long months of the regular season, they smashed more and more records, overcoming adversity along the way. The team was plagued with goalie injuries, yet kept winning.
By the start of February, they broke the record for most wins by an expansion team in their first year of play with 34. Later that same month, it was the same for points – their 84th. In March, they became the first team since the 1979-1980 season to make the playoffs in their debut year. Again, later that month, they won the Pacific division crown with victory over the San Jose Sharks.
It wasn’t just NHL records that were tumbling, either. The Golden Knights became the first expansion team from any of North America’s four big sports leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL) to end the season with a winning record. They finished fifth, behind the likes of pre-season favourites Nashville Predators and Tampa Bay Lightning, with 109 points, 51 wins, 24 losses and 7 overtime losses.
But then it was time for the playoffs to start. “Playoff hockey is a different beast”, the seasoned pundits claimed. They would surely struggle against a team with as much playoff experience as the LA Kings.
Yet as they so frequently have for so long this season, the Knights defied expectations. They won the series in just four games to progress to the second round, becoming the first team in NHL history to sweep their first playoff series in their inaugural season.
Immediately following that victory, the odds of them becoming Stanley Cup Champion were changed. They became the 4/1 joint favourites, along with the Nashville Predators. Back in October, they were 200/1.
The sense of shock around the NHL and sporting industry is palpable. The most common question is “how is this happening”? The truth is, no-one really knows. Maybe it was the Vegas shooting that gave the team inspiration to prove the doubters wrong. Perhaps the pre-season predictions of how terrible they’d be added fire to the bellies of the players. It could be just as simple as a group of players have gelled together really well, and believe they can win more than at any other point in their careers.
It has been a fabulous story for the NHL – but, inevitably, one that has not been universally popular. Fans from other teams claim Vegas were given favourable odds in the expansion draft. Yet this argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Nobody was predicting the Knights would make the playoffs, or even come close. Nobody thought William Karlsson, who had only previously scored 18 goals in his NHL career, would score a whopping 43 this year. Nobody thought any of Vegas’ other players would play as well as they have.
Which is what makes this story so special – we’re witnessing a sports film come to life. What was once thought as impossible is now close to reality. Should the Knights, who just recorded a 7-0 victory against the Sharks in the second round, go on to win the Stanley Cup, it will be one of the most remarkable things to happen in sporting history. Even if they don’t, this season will surely go down in folklore as something you had to see to believe – for their new records will likely stand for generations to come.
Can they win it? Even now, there are plenty of doubters. Yet with every win, there are an ever increasing number of people starting to think they will. This is one story that doesn’t look like ending any time soon.