WINNIPEG, Manitoba — George McPhee plays his hand publicly about as often as Marc-Andre Fleury allows a day (second?) to pass without smiling, but when late December arrived and the Golden Knights general manager proclaimed he would likely finish the season with the roster Vegas began things with, you got the idea he believed in the product.
On Sunday, that faith, along with a strong dose of it in February, bestowed McPhee the sort of reality not even he could have imagined.
Vegas has advanced to the Stanley Cup Final in its inaugural season, the result of beating Winnipeg 2-1 in Game 5 of a best-of-seven Western Conference Final series before 15,321 at Bell MTS Place.
The Knights will next meet the winner of the Eastern Conference Final between Tampa Bay and Washington.
No, none of the above is a misprint.
McPhee stood off to one side in the winning locker room Sunday, appearing both relieved and happy, the author to this historic narrative of an expansion team now being four wins from hoisting hockey’s most precious and significant trophy, the man whose desire when building this team was to discover as much character as skill.
He wanted a great product on the ice.
He wanted just as much a great sense of honor and integrity in the room.
“We’ve worked hard at that, going back two years when we first started putting this together,” McPhee said. “We really wanted a strong culture made up of high quality people, because it makes a difference.”
It was on his mind again at the trade deadline three months ago, when McPhee chose to roll with those players on a team that at the time was a betting favorite to win the Stanley Cup, going all-in on key names that some believed he might deal to potentially strengthen the future.
He was instead a buyer in landing Detroit forward Tomas Tatar for three draft picks — a first, second and third-rounder — and also around that time acquired forward Ryan Reaves from Pittsburgh for a prospect.
Both players have at times struggled finding their place with Vegas, never mind a consistent place in the lineup, but all that changed against Winnipeg.
In Game 2, Tatar, who had been a healthy scratch in seven of the previous 11 playoff games, scored to give Vegas a 1-0 lead in what would become a 3-1 victory to steal home ice.
On Sunday, Reaves, the Winnipeg native, deflected a shot from Luca Sbisa for what would prove the game-winning goal in a series-clinching victory.
“It makes you feel better (about the moves),” McPhee said. “They have both contributed in different ways for us and they fit in because they’re really high-quality people.
“At (the trade deadline), we just believed in this group, believed in this coaching staff, just had that feeling that it was special. We wanted to help them any way we could.”
McPhee was an assistant general manager in Vancouver when the Canucks advanced to a Stanley Cup Final in 1994 and again as general manager of the Capitals in 1998, so it has been two decades since he has known this sort of opportunity.
The room he so expertly constructed for both its talent and togetherness remembers well those trade deadline rumors, when the hope within the group was that it had shown him enough to continue believing.
To have even more faith in them.
“I was one of the guys people were talking about, but I didn’t come here to be traded,” said veteran forward James Neal, thought at the expansion draft as one who could be dealt as a playoff rental to a contending team should Vegas endure a typical losing expansion season. “I came here to win. We’ve had a positive mindset all season — from the general manager to the coaching staff to the owner to everybody.
“We weren’t satisfied at the beginning, we weren’t satisfied at Christmas, we weren’t satisfied at just being one of the best teams. We want to be the best one. When you get a group of guys to believe in each other, amazing things can happen.”
McPhee stood off to one side in the winning locker room Sunday, appearing both relieved and happy, the author to this historic narrative. He was surrounded by that which he built.
“It means more now because I’m older,” he said. “I told (assistant general manager) Kelly (McCrimmon) a few times, ‘Geez, we’re going to the Stanley Cup Final.’
“I believed we could get there … not the whole time … but recently.”
Faith is to believe what you do not see.
McPhee sees it now.
He believed in the room, and it has delivered him to hockey’s promised land.
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.