Column: Misfits no more, Knights 2 wins from Cup final

LAS VEGAS (AP) A year ago at this time the Vegas Golden Knights had one minor league player on an otherwise empty roster and no idea what to expect when an entire team was finally assembled.

Now, they are two wins away from playing for the Stanley Cup.

The best story in sports got even better Wednesday night on the Las Vegas Strip, where the Golden Knights continued their improbable run toward the Cup final with a 4-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets. Before a raucous crowd of 18,477 newly minted hockey fans, the expansion team like no other won a second straight against the Jets to take a 2-1 lead in the Western Conference final.

As much as 500-1 to win the Stanley Cup in this gambling city’s sports books when the season began, the players that like to refer to themselves as the Golden Misfits are now incredibly the odds-on favorites to win it all.

In a city built on losers, the first major pro franchise could be the winner no one expected – even the players cast off from their former teams.

Misfits, they’re not. But many of them had never even met before last summer’s expansion draft, and now they’re on the brink of the Stanley Cup finals.

”I don’t think anyone saw us here,” said Marc Andre Fleury, the three-time Stanley Cup winner who was left unprotected in the expansion draft by Pittsburgh. ”I’m really proud to be part of this season.”

On a night when Fleury made one spectacular save after another, the Knights were just good enough to take the advantage in the series. They held onto a one-goal advantage most of the third period, despite being outplayed and outshot by the Jets.

The grudges they once held against their former teams are gone. But they’ve played the entire season with a chip on their shoulders after being judged expendable by their former employers.

”We all came here with the right mindset,” said James Neal, who had a goal and an assist in the win. ”No one likes to be left unprotected.”

That the Knights were competitive in their first season wasn’t a total surprise. The NHL set up the expansion draft so teams couldn’t hold onto all of their top players, and the Knights wasted no time in making Fleury the backbone of the new team.

What did surprise a lot of people in hockey was that general manager George McPhee nailed just the right combination of speed up front to go with the stellar goalkeeping. And so far they’ve held their own speed-wise in the series against the Jets, a team built on speed itself.

”They’re a quick team, for sure,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said. ”When we’re fast we look faster, too. It’s the ebb and flow of the game.”

The Knights are not only the hottest ticket on the Strip, but the hottest thing in a city of 2 million. Las Vegans have embraced their first major pro franchise and opposing players often talk about the atmosphere inside the T-Mobile Arena.

Away from the arena it’s more of the same. Golden Knights merchandise is everywhere in the city and hundreds of fans show up just to watch practice at the team’s facility in the suburbs. Homegrown baseball hero Bryce Harper is such a big fan he has bats with Golden Knights logos, and singer Carrie Underwood offered (it was declined) to sing the national anthem after her Nashville Predators were eliminated.

And if the Jets drove past Caesars Palace on their way to the game they might have noticed the statue of Caesar was holding a Knights hockey stick.

Fleury, who made spectacular back-to-back saves that left him sprawled across the ice while the Knights were clinging to a 3-2 lead in the third period, was asked after what he would have thought before the season if someone told him the team would be within two wins of the Stanley Cup finals.

”Probably laugh a little bit,” he said.

No one is laughing now as the Knights try and make history as an expansion team turned Stanley Cup champion. The team has defied the odds since the opening game of the season, and bookies are having a hard time finding anyone to bet against them now.

They were Vegas Strong, starting the season just after the murderous Oct. 1 rampage just down the street from the arena that took 58 lives in the worst mass shooting ever in the U.S. They became Vegas Born, which has resonated in a city where so many people are from elsewhere.

Call them what you want. But soon you may be calling them Stanley Cup champions.

”We’re just a bunch of hockey players that wanted to find a home,” Jonathan Marchessault said a few games ago. ”And we did.”

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg