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Champions! Golden Knights win Stanley Cup

Updated July 29, 2023 - 10:39 am

The gold jerseys wrapped around Mark Stone as he came to the T-Mobile Arena bench.

The record announced crowd of 19,058 was deafening as hats hit the ice behind the Golden Knights captain. But all that mattered to the Knights was each other, as they pulled in for a tight embrace that was the purest distillation of the bond that brought the team to its ultimate goal.

Spurred by a hat trick from Stone, the group completed its journey to the pinnacle of hockey in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final on Tuesday night. The Knights put in one of the best performances of the postseason to eliminate the Florida Panthers with a 9-3 win and become the seventh franchise in NHL history to win a championship in six seasons or less.

Gold streamers fell from the rafters as the team finished its six-year journey from expansion team to championship club by piling on top of one another by the glass behind its net. The Knights are the 21st active franchise to clinch a Cup, and they did it with depth, determination and a deep commitment to one another that will stand the test of time. Their reward is being linked forever, as their names will join the 3,489 already etched on hockey’s hallowed hardware.

Owner Bill Foley said “Cup in six” before his team even played a game. In year six, the Knights got it done.

“It takes an entire organization,” said right wing Jonathan Marchessault, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP. “This is something we will always remember. It’s an unbelievable feeling. It’s definitely the best feeling in the world.”

The buildup

It felt more like a coronation than a game from the beginning.

The fans — who entered excited after a pregame concert from DJ Steve Aoki and a flyover from two F-15 and two F-35 fighter jets from Nellis Air Force Base — erupted before the first puck drop after a surprise from first-year coach Bruce Cassidy.

He started five of the Knights’ remaining six original members — Marchessault, left wing Reilly Smith, center William Karlsson, and defensemen Brayden McNabb and Shea Theodore in their first potential Cup-clinching game.

The five, along with left wing William Carrier, helped a new hockey market fall in love with this team and this sport when the team started play in 2017. They helped their new city heal in the wake of the Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting by going on a magical run to the 2018 final.

The Knights lost that one to the Washington Capitals in five games. They wouldn’t be denied this time, after being bolstered for years by splashy and subtle moves from president of hockey operations George McPhee and general manager Kelly McCrimmon that turned them from plucky underdogs into a true juggernaut.

“I wish we would have done it the first year when this city really needed it after Oct. 1,” McPhee said. “But we stayed with it and kept making the hard decisions. It was never personal with anyone. It was just about making this team better if we could do that. And it worked.”

The domination

The Knights ended the postseason 16-6. They took a 2-0 lead into the first intermission after goals from Stone and defenseman Nic Hague, then left no doubt in the second.

Defenseman Aaron Ekblad cut the Panthers’ deficit to 2-1 before the Knights responded. Defenseman Alec Martinez, Smith, Stone and right wing Michael Amadio scored to put the team up 6-1 by the second intermission. The Panthers, playing without injured leading scorer Matthew Tkachuk, had little hope of a comeback.

That allowed the crowd to start its celebration early. The fans got loud when left wing Ivan Barbashev scored to make it 7-1, then exploded when Stone answered two Panthers goals by finishing off his second-ever hat trick with an empty netter with 5:54 remaining. Center Nicolas Roy tacked on the final goal to give the Knights their most in a game.

“It’s why you play the game,” said Stone, who became the fourth player in NHL history with a hat trick in a Cup-clinching game. “You play the game to win, and we won. I was sitting on the bench with three minutes left just looking at each other (thinking), ‘We’re about to win the Stanley Cup.’”

The victory ensured the team never faced elimination in the playoffs and trailed in a series only once: After Game 1 against Winnipeg in the first round.

The Knights rolled because they never ran into an opponent that could match them forward line for forward line or defense pair for defense pair. Their depth was unparalleled, with 13 skaters scoring goals and 17 recording points in the final.

The players who pitched in included the original misfits, blockbuster additions Stone, defenseman Alex Pietrangelo and center Jack Eichel, and under-the-radar pickups such as centers Roy and Chandler Stephenson, left wing Brett Howden and Amadio.

The Knights’ overwhelming numbers advantage helped them outscore their foes 68-33 at five-on-five in the playoffs. That’s the most goals scored and the best goal differential at that strength since the NHL began tracking the stat in 2009-10.

“We knew the team that we had,” said Eichel, who finished as the postseason’s leading scorer with 26 points in 22 games. “We had contributions from everyone. It was a pretty special run.”

The connections

It still took more than talent to get the team to its ultimate goal.

The Knights built unbelievable chemistry, creating an unbreakable sense of belief in their game and one another. They competed on the ice and off at all times. They passed out an Elvis wig and glasses to their player of the game after each win.

That bond showed up when the puck dropped every night. The Knights — who used the mantra “it hurts to win” this postseason — displayed their commitment to one another by blocking an NHL-leading 450 shots in the playoffs. Their 19.94 blocks per 60 minutes were also more than any other team.

That collective sacrifice is why this group was able to win together and bring Las Vegas its second major professional sports championship, after the Aces’ WNBA title in 2022.

It also made the Knights’ celebration sweet as they passed the Cup from player to player — with the six original members getting it after Stone — in front of their home fans before welcoming friends and family to the ice. They knew it took all of them to accomplish their ultimate goal. Now they’re tied together for all time.

“We were saying that to each other, ‘We’ll never forget this team now,’” Howden said. “This is going on the Stanley Cup. For us to be here now, it’s crazy.”

Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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