LAS VEGAS (AP) — Drivers were directed to the overflow parking lot Thursday morning, and a line at least 30 deep waited and hoped to get into the Vegas Golden Knights' practice.
It was like 2018 all over again.
Except this Knights team is no longer the unexpected first-year expansion club making a shocking run to the Stanley Cup Final. Expectations are considerably higher as Vegas prepares to open its best-of-seven series Saturday against the Florida Panthers — this year's version of the 2018 Knights — and the only team goal it hasn't reached is lifting the Cup.
“We’ve got, I think, a way better team overall," said William Carrier, one of the six original players still on the team. "The first year, everyone was on a contract year. Everyone was overplaying what they really are. We overachieved. It was a bit more of an emotional year that year. I think this year, we deserve to be here. We’ve played well all year and we’ve got some great guys and we’ve got some depth, so it’s a little different than the first year.”
No question the star power is considerably higher. The first-year Knights didn't have a Jack Eichel as the front-line center, a Mark Stone as the captain, an Alex Pietrangelo as an A-level defenseman.
It did have Marc-Andre Fleury in goal, the face of the franchise at the time and still arguably Vegas' most beloved player. He was a genuine star and fit well into the locker room that called itself the “Golden Misfits."
The departure of Fleury in 2021, the aggressive moves to bring in Eichel, Stone, Pietrangelo and a host of other players and twice making coaching changes showed management viewed 2018 as a starting point. That attitude began at the top, when Bill Foley, upon buying the team, said he wanted to win the “Cup in six” years.
This is the sixth year.
Other than last season when the Knights had about 500 man games lost to injuries, they have made the playoffs each year. They have advanced to at least the NHL semifinals in four of those six seasons and now twice to the championship round.
Only Tampa Bay, which won titles in 2020 and 2021 and appeared in the 2022 final, has experienced more success during that stretch.
“It's been pretty tough to have any team match what we've done,” said Reilly Smith, one of the Misfits. “Tampa's obviously been pretty incredible over the last five, six years, but other than that, I like what we've done here with our organization."
Yet, there has been heartbreak, even for this seemingly over-blessed franchise.
A year after making the Cup final, the Knights blew a 3-1 series lead and 3-0 advantage midway through the third period of Game 7 to lose in the first round to rival San Jose.
Then came back-to-back losses one step away from the Cup final to Dallas and Montreal — both teams Vegas figured to have the upper hand against.
Even if fans in other NHL cities — hello, Toronto — won't weep for the Knights over such losses, those defeats have created a sense of urgency that didn't exist in the first season. Just making the final series was considered a win at that time.
Championship windows last only so long, as Tampa Bay now and Chicago before it have discovered. Vegas players don't know how many more chances beyond this season they will get to capture the Stanley Cup.
“Everybody feels good to be here,” said Jonathan Marchessault, one of the Misfits. “Only one of them gets rewarded for it. They don't come that often, those opportunities, and you've got to make the most of it."
The Knights also were there in 2018, beat Washington in the first game and then lost the next four.
“That first year, we were overwhelmed a bit," said Shea Theodore, another 2018 holdover. ”It’s exciting getting there, but it’s definitely the hardest series to win. I think we thought it was going to come easy after winning Game 1, and our inexperience kind of got to us, where this time around we have a lot of guys with Cups in here."
Associated Press hockey writer Stephen Whyno and freelance journalist W.G. Ramirez contributed to this report.
AP NHL playoffs: https://apnews.com/hub/stanley-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
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