Knights are Stanley Cup champions

The Vegas Golden Knights win their first Stanley Cup by demolishing the Florida Panthers, 9-3, in Game 5 at home.

LAS VEGAS — Prophecy fulfilled.

Long before the Vegas Golden Knights were a team, had a nickname, a logo and an identity, Bill Foley was asked what his expectations were for his would-be NHL team that he hoped to own?

His answer was direct and succinct.

“Playoffs in three seasons, Cup in six,” he said, referring to the Stanley Cup.

Nostradamus has nothing on Foley. The man who brought major league professional sports to Southern Nevada in 2016 was spot on as his Golden Knights captured the franchise’s first Stanley Cup championship in their sixth season, culminating a remarkable run Tuesday with a convincing 9-3 win over the Eastern Conference champion Florida Panthers and taking the series in five games in front of 19,058, the largest home crowd in team history. 

The Knights nearly made a shambles of their owner’s timetable by making the playoffs in their inaugural season in 2017-18 and made it all the way to the Cup Final, only to fall to the Washington Capitals in five games after winning Game 1.

There would be no such hiccup Tuesday. The Knights jumped out to a 2-0 first-period lead against the Panthers, who were shorthanded and trying to survive without their best player in Matthew Tkachuk, who was injured early in the series and was unable to go in Game 5.

The Panthers battled back to cut it to 2-1 in the second period. But four unanswered goals from Alec Martinez, Reilly Smith, Mark Stone (his second of the game) and Michael Amadio put it out of reach as the Cats simply ran out of lives, and time.

Be honest. How many of you truly believed that when the season began back on Oct. 11 that Stone, the team captain, would be accepting the Stanley Cup from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and skate around the T-Mobile Arena ice with it?

This was a team with a new coach, a first-string goaltender who was unable to play, a backup goalie who also was unavailable to start the year, that had key players still trying to come back from major surgeries and were in a supposedly tough division.

It was a team that had its roster depth tested as a number of key performers missed extended periods of time due to injuries, or in defenseman Alex Pietrangelo’s case, for personal reasons as he attended to his daughter’s health issues.

But it was also a team of veterans, guys with Stanley Cup experience and rings, players who liked each other and the coach they would be playing for. 

They quickly bought into Bruce Cassidy’s system of playing responsible hockey in their own end, even if it took a few of the vets a little time to adjust. They were a terrific road team and even as the injuries to the goaltenders mounted and Cassidy had to use five different goalies at one point, they battled, found a way to compete. 

And though they were never completely healthy, the Knights were well enough to make the treacherous journey that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs and be the last man standing with a minimum of casualties along the way.

Adin Hill, who had been a backup for a good portion of his NHL career and never sniffed the playoffs while in Arizona and San Jose, had missed some time due to injury earlier in the year. Yet he found himself with an unexpected opportunity when Laurent Brossoit was injured in the second round of the playoffs against Edmonton. He got his chance, ran with it and put up some of the best numbers by goalie in the history of the playoffs. He would go 11-4 with a 2.17 goals-against average and a .933 save percentage.

“It’s still doesn’t seem real,” Hill said. “I was blessed to be with a great group of guys. It’s an unbelievable feeling.”

For Martinez, winning his third Cup was nice (he has two rings from his time with Los Angeles). But doing it with this group will always be special to him.

“There’s a real love between everybody,” he said. “I know it sounds a bit corny but that’s the truth. Everyone believed and played for each other.”

Let’s not forget the job general manager Kelly McCrimmon did in shoring up the roster by trading for Ivan Barbashev, Teddy Blueger and Jonathan Quick at the trade deadline in early March. All three contributed to the team’s late-season push to win the Pacific Division and the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference with a team record 111 points. Barbashev in particular was a force throughout the playoffs, playing a heavy game and working well with Jack Eichel and Jonathan Marchessault on the Knights’ top line. 

Stone, who would finish the night with a hat trick after hitting an empty net for Vegas’ eighth goal, was always confident that the team would produce and that he himself would recover from a second back surgery at the end of January and be ready to join his teammates on this remarkable run.

“We always have wanted to win,” McCrimmon said. “Bill Foley gave us the opportunity to do that.”  

And Cassidy, the man who came on board a year ago on Wednesday, didn’t really know anyone, was still smarting from being let go by Boston after six successful years with the Bruins, and put his philosophy and trust in his players who reciprocated in kind, was thrilled to be at the top of the mountain after chasing the dream for so many years.

“You never know how things are gong to work out,” he said. “You hope it goes well. But there’s adversity to deal with and to their credit, our group never wavered. They believed in each other and what we were trying to do.

“Our staff did a tremendous job all year and we found ways to win. I can’t say enough of how proud I am of this group.”

There was no bitterness. No sense of vindication. It was all about sticking with the plan, tweaking it when needed and never losing sight of the objective, which was to win the Stanley Cup.

“Bruce and his staff did a tremendous job and he was the right person to coach this team,” said McCrimmon, who had moved on from Pete DeBoer after the Knights missed the playoffs in 2021-22. 

Cassidy did a classy thing by starting five of the original six Golden Misfits Tuesday. He reunited Marchessault with William Karlsson and Smith and started his normal second pair of Shea Theodore and Brayden McNabb.

“I don’t think any of us were expecting that,” said Marchessault, the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Most Valuable Player in the playoffs. “But that was really nice of (Cassidy) to do.”

And when Bettman handed the 35.5-pound Cup to Stone, he would hand it off to Smith, who then gave it to Marchessault, who passed it to Karlsson, who then handed it to McNabb who handed it to Theodore and finally to William Carrier, the sixth original Misfit before the rest of the Knights got their turn.

It was a fitting gesture of reminding us how much those guys meant to this community and are part of the fabric that bonds this team and this city following the unspeakable tragedy of Oct. 1, 2017 when 58 people lost their lives at the hand of a deranged gunman, two more would eventually succumb to their injuries and dozens more would need to recover from their wounds.

“I don’t think any of us who were here will forget what happened,” McNabb said. “It will always be part of us and to be able to win the Cup and bring so much joy for the city, it’s a special feeling.”

Special indeed.