From the beginning, they had no idea what might happen, how good or bad they might prove to be, what results and memories such a new and curious journey might create.
Who are we kidding?
From the beginning, they hardly knew each other.
“You weren’t coming in and asking how a guy’s summer went like usual,” said Golden Knights forward James Neal. “You were coming in and saying, ‘Hi, I’m James,’ and, ‘Hi, I’m Reilly. Nice to meet you.’
“So, yeah, it was a little different.”
How they traveled from such an inception of everyday pleasantries to now — having annihilated the low expectations of an expansion team to become Pacific Division champions, sweeping Los Angeles in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, about to host Game 1 of a Western Conference semifinal against San Jose — is a tale of nearly implausible occurrences.
But did Vegas need to win when it matters most to have such a remarkable season validated as legitimate rather than an upset of historic proportions?
Did they need to deliver some postseason success to make all this a little more believable?
There is a saying that the only permission, the only validation, the only opinion that matters in a quest for greatness is our own, and it’s one the Knights seemed to adopt as the wins piled up and division lead grew.
They have just sort of played all season and let others worry about how to quantify achievements.
But if an NHL season is like the MCATs — you’re not getting into Harvard Medical School with an average score and you’re not being credited for a terrific year without some playoff success — the Knights, in sweeping the Kings in a best-of-seven series, certainly offered evidence their presence isn’t due to some list of serendipitous acts.
Is the greatest sense of revenge really accomplishing what others say you can’t?
If so, the Knights have been feeling a serious level of satisfaction for months now.
“Again, we’re just trying to be as good as we can be,” said Knights general manager George McPhee. “I don’t know what kind of validation we need. We didn’t know what to expect with the season or with the playoffs. Nobody knew who was going to win the series (against the Kings). Nobody knew if it would be a four-game sweep or go seven games. That’s the beauty of the playoffs. You don’t know.
“No one knows what’s going to happen (against San Jose). We think we’re a pretty good hockey club. We haven’t looked at the season in its totality. What did we have to do? Win the first period in the first game of the season and go from there. That’s what we’re doing in the playoffs. And here we are.”
No magic needed
You don’t cheat the game all the way to 51 wins and being eight points clear of the second-place team in your division. You don’t go 20-6-3 against Pacific opponents with smoke and mirrors. You don’t tie for second in home wins because of beginner’s luck.
You don’t sweep Los Angeles because some black cat crossed Drew Doughty’s path on his way into Staples Center.
You’re not among the betting favorites to win a Stanley Cup because those at sports books cheer for nice, happy storylines.
You don’t manage any of it because of a flu bug opposing teams supposedly caught upon arriving at McCarran International Airport and being introduced to some of the more tempting options offered by the Las Vegas nightlife.
“I think the coaches have been very good to talk about what the focus should be, not really to validate ourselves or season or what we might do in the playoffs, but to always look at it as an honor to be picked up by an expansion team,” said Knights forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. “A lot of really good players — a lot that were probably better than all of us in our room — weren’t picked (by Vegas). But the (organization) trusted us.
“From the start, we didn’t know how good we could be, but we competed and played the right way. We don’t have superstars. We have 20 guys each night that play for the team. From that point on, we found our way. I think this is the same way we have approached (the playoffs).”
Deserving such opportunity
The term “house money” was first described by a few Johnson Graduate School of Management students at Cornell University, the idea being to take more and greater risks when investing with profits. Vegas, by all reasonable measures given how vehemently it demolished any previous expansion feats, has been playing with a suitcase full of it for some time.
Validate: To check or prove the validity or accuracy of something.
Hi, I’m James.
Hi, I’m Reilly.
Nice to meet you.
When you begin there and seven months later are about to host Game 1 of a Western Conference semifinal, proving you belong is as past tense as a pair of Hyde vintage skates.
The Knights are here for the simplest of reasons: They deserve to be.
They’ve earned it.
Contact columnist Ed Graney at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.