Let’s skate two.
That’s what baseball Hall of Famer Ernie Banks might have said about the Stanley Cup Final, and the Golden Knights having played their way into it in stunning fashion.
The Chicago Cubs slugger was known for maintaining a sunny disposition despite never having played in the World Series, his sport’s biggest stage, during his 19 seasons.
Growing up playing hockey on the Canadian prairie, Knights defenseman Deryk Engelland said he really didn’t follow baseball that much.
But on the verge of participating in his first Cup final at age 36, he can relate to Mr. Cub.
“This is what you play for and dream of your whole life,” the Knights’ rugged blue-liner, alternate captain and inspirational leader said a few hours before he and his teammates learned they would be matched against the Washington Capitals in a Stanley Cup Final that not even Nostradamus with a new and improved crystal ball could have predicted in October.
“I couldn’t be happier to be (in it), especially here in Vegas with the group of guys we have.”
It wasn’t just rhetoric when Engelland spoke of dreaming about playing for Lord Stanley’s Cup as a schoolboy. Much in the same way American youngsters fantasize about hitting a game-winning home run in Game 7 of the World Series, Canadian kids imagine scoring the winning goal in overtime of the last hockey game of the season and skating around the arena with the Cup held high.
“You’re playing street hockey, picking your favorite player or goalie — that’s who you are, right, playing at that time, with all of your buddies, and it always comes down to the last game, Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final,” Engelland said. “It’s very similar.”
Since entertaining those wistful visions, Engelland has played for 10 teams — including two in Las Vegas — in four leagues on two continents. After finally breaking into the NHL after serving a long minor league apprenticeship, he played four seasons for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Most guys who come up with Pittsburgh figure it’s only a matter of time until they spend a day with the Stanley Cup after winning it. It happened three times for Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury as a Penguin.
It did not happen once for Engelland, who said he played for good teams in Pittsburgh that came up short for whatever reason.
“We had some great teams there; that one year we had (Jarome Iginla), people said we were a shoo-in to win the Cup — and I think we lost four straight to Boston,” in the Eastern Conference Final, he said.
“Once you get in the playoffs, anything can happen. You’ve got to take it all in because it can be a long time until you’re even (back) in the playoffs or get this far.”
Long shot realized
But even the optimistic Engelland, who served two stints with the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers and met his wife, Melissa, here — she was the one who helped craft his poignant speech on opening night at T-Mobile Arena following the horrific mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival — admitted he never thought he would get this far, with this team, in his adopted hometown.
“I think every team you go to — it doesn’t matter what the circumstances are, your goal at the beginning of the year is to make the playoffs and then go from there,” he said. “But if you’re asking me if I thought we’d be here, almost June, still playing, I probably would have laughed and said ‘Yeah, OK, whatever you think.’
“But here we are today, and I never could have guessed how well this team would have come together.”
As he said, when one finally makes it to center stage of his profession at this juncture of one’s career, one should stop and smell the roses. But to get this far and not write the final chapter to the most outlandish NHL season ever witnessed would be a huge disappointment.
So when he skates onto the blue line for the playing of the national anthem before Game 1 on Monday, don’t expect Deryk Engelland to sneak a cellphone onto the ice and take a selfie showing the Stanley Cup Final patch on the front of his sweater. As if finally playing in the Final is good enough.
“Just another game,” he said with a slight smile that suggested he really didn’t believe it, either.