After the handshakes were over Thursday night, the Vegas Golden Knights players gathered near center ice and raised their sticks in a final salute to the fans.
Their fans responded just like they have all season long. Thousands of them in steel gray and gold stood and cheered for their Knights in T-Mobile Arena after a season-ending loss to the Washington Capitals in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Although the Knights fell three victories shy of winning the Cup, many fans were thankful for the team’s magical, improbable season and for having a major professional team to follow.
“We’ve been playing with house money,” Lee Butler said minutes after the Knights’ 4-3 loss in Game 5, the Capitals’ fourth and deciding win in the series.
The Knights got beat by a good team, Butler said. Looking at the big picture, he said, the team’s inaugural season has proven a major professional sports team can thrive in the Las Vegas Valley.
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The hockey team “over-delivered” to its city, the league and against everybody they played, Butler said.
“We went so far beyond expectation. That’s the key,” Butler said. “And I hope that the fans in Las Vegas don’t forget that.”
The thousands of Capitals fans in attendance stood and shouted “Go, Caps, Go!” as the clock ticked down. They traded cheers with the Golden Knights fans throughout the game but ultimately it was the visiting fans who would go home happy.
As commissioner Gary Bettman presented the Stanley Cup to the Capitals, Amber Fuhriman, 31, remained proud of the Golden Knights’ run from expansion team to the Cup Final in their inaugural season.
“It’s been a pretty amazing year,” the Las Vegas resident said. “No matter what happened.”
About 20 minutes before puck drop, 51-year-old Scott Dale said the Knights had already accomplished plenty, regardless of the outcome of Thursday’s game.
“Honestly, I can’t believe we’re here. We’re here. We’ve succeeded,” Dale said. “Win or lose, we’re winners.”
He and his wife, Norma, bought season tickets on a whim when they went on sale. Scott Dale said he expected he would be rather ambivalent about the team before they took the ice. Norma Dale said she didn’t know anything about hockey.
While “Vegas likes winners,” Scott Dale said he and his wife will be behind them, win or lose.
“They’re our champions,” Norma Dale said.
As the Capitals took a 1-0 lead in the second period, thousands of Capitals fans at the game screamed and shouted while Knights fans fell silent.
“All the air went out of the building,” Amaris Surnacz said.
She and Mike Fisher stood behind the last row in section 18 and stayed hopeful the Knights could win the game and extend the series.
“Certainly could be better, but we’re not down and out yet,” Surnacz said.
Standing directly behind them were Brad Wilcko, 36, and Christina Munro, 34.
The series represented a slight wedge between the two who traveled from San Diego to watch their two favorite teams play each other.
Munro would have cheered on the Knights if they were playing any other team. But on Thursday, she donned a Washington jersey.
After the Capitals took a 2-1 lead, apprehension crept into the crowd. But at 12:56, David Perron netted his first goal of the playoffs, and thousands erupted.
Wilcko, wearing Vegas gray, screamed “Oh my god” and pumped his fist. Munro wore a slight frown before leaning in for a kiss from Wilcko.
Wilcko made a $100 bet with a relative of Munro’s that the Caps would win a Cup before the Knights.
They certainly didn’t expect the teams to meet each other in the Cup Final.
“Win or lose for both of us, both of us win,” Munro said.