Vegas Golden Knights' Marc-Andre Fleury and Deryk Engelland. Source: Getty Images
Vegas has bucked convention throughout its unprecedented expansion season and is on the cusp of completing the most unlikely championship story in the history of professional sports.
If the Vegas Golden Knights go on to win the Western Conference final – something they could do as early as Sunday afternoon – they should buck NHL tradition by seizing the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl with gusto and skating around the ice, passing it around and holding it high over their heads.
After all, turning convention on its ear in every sense has served the Golden Knights very well to this point. They’re a team of cast-offs, albeit far superior cast-offs than any NHL expansion team has ever received. They’re one game away from the Stanley Cup final without a discernible No. 1 stud defenseman and they play the game the same way whether it’s the first or last minute of the game, whether they’re up or down a goal. And they have Marc-Andre Fleury, a guy who continues to give the impression that it’s his world and we’re all just living in it.
One of the reasons the Golden Knights find themselves so close to the final they can taste it is that Marc-Andre Fleury is outplaying is Winnipeg Jets counterpart Connor Hellebuyck. Badly. Since winning Game 1, the Jets have been chasing this series and if they don’t get better goaltending and better fundamental play from their defense corps, the Golden Knights are going to outrun them. The Jets have had to work and claw so hard and dominate so much to score a goal, only to have the pin put in their balloon by a quick-strike Golden Knights offense combined with very questionable goaltending. When that happens, nothing else really matters, does it?
Back to Fleury, he is hands-down the Conn Smythe winner if the Golden Knights go on to win the Stanley Cup. And that’s something we have to start talking about as though it’s a very real possibility. The Golden Knights have roared back every single time the punditry has thought their time was up and reality was going to hit them square in the face. With an 11-3 record in the playoffs, the Knights have given themselves an enormous amount of rest and ample time between series, something they’ll be able to do once again if they can finish off the Jets on Sunday afternoon while the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning likely go seven games.
Having Fleury as the crown jewel of these playoffs could be the best thing to ever happen to the NHL. There has not been a No. 1 goalie with this much personality since, well, the last time Fleury won it as the alpha male in Pittsburgh’s crease in 2009. He is exactly what the NHL needs, self-effacing enough to perpetuate the aw-shucks persona of the NHL player and playful and lighthearted enough to entertain people. How can it be bad for hockey when, after the Golden Knights’ Game 4 win, Fleury was playing bubble hockey with the children of Darcy Haugen, the coach of the Humboldt Broncos who was killed in the bus crash more than a month ago?
To be sure, there is nothing wrong with the Golden Knights making the final or even winning the Stanley Cup. Is it good for hockey that a team can come in with stable ownership, a capable GM and an excellent support staff and be rewarded by competing for a championship in its first year? Is it good for the game that sports books in Vegas are seeing more hockey action? Is it good for the game that Vegas is proving that hockey can actually thrive in the desert? Is it good for hockey that the NHL is going to stake its territory there before the NFL can even begin to gain a foothold? Is it good for hockey that a team is showing that it can be super successful by playing a style that’s based on puck pressure and speed and play it consistently? Yes to all of those things.
Can it continue to play out beyond this magical season? Well, to be sure everything fell perfectly for the Golden Knights in 2017-18, regardless of how things ultimately turn out. Fleury is 33 years old and has a history of concussion issues. Aside from their goaltending, the Golden Knights were remarkably healthy this year and, given the opportunity to take on greater roles, many of their players have had career seasons. Everything their coach did seemed to work and their leading goal-scorer had a shooting percentage of 23.4 this season.
Is the Western Conference final over? Not yet, but it certainly has that feeling, doesn’t it? If the Golden Knights can seal the deal, the season that has defied logic from Day 1 will go on for a couple more weeks. And there will be no reason to believe Vegas can’t continue to buck convention and complete the most unlikely championship story in the history of professional sports.