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Sunday, March 19, 2023

Good Knight or good night – Fleury holds the key

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I keep waiting for Vegas to remember they are an expansion team. The Golden Knights seem to be the only ones who don’t realize this is not supposed to happen this way. The legendary Montreal Canadians, for cryin out loud, have gone a quarter century since they last played for and won the Stanley Cup. Suddenly, in walks Vegas who less than a year ago had not even gone through the expansion draft yet. So who are these guys and how did this happen so quickly?

It starts at the top where Knights General Manager and future Hall-of-Famer, George McPhee, stands tall. He came from Washington where, in his first year as GM the Capitals made their first ever trip to the finals. History has repeated for McPhee in Vegas, and interestingly, he must stare down and beat the team he built. Realistically, he has two teams in this Stanley Cup Finals. McPhee was also Vice President and Director of Hockey operations for the Vancouver Canucks, leading up to and including their loss in the 1994 finals against the team McPhee played for (NY Rangers).

McPhee picked a great team to fit his mold and hired the perfect coach. Gerard Gallant did an outstanding job with a first year team. Truth is, this is a remarkable coaching job regardless of how long the franchise had been around. He previously coached the Columbus Blue Jackets and Florida Panthers to a mediocre 152-140-4 record with a 2-4 career post-season record. These are not exactly the kind of number that would command attention, but McPhee knew better. Win or lose, Gallant’s coaching job this season is legendary.

Putting the right pieces and the right coach in place is crucial but ultimately, it falls on the shoulders of the players. The biggest shoulders on this team belong to 3-time Stanley Cup champion and goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury. Two of Fleury’s rings were secured with him on the bench and he seems to be on a mission to validate his championship pedigree. Clearly the best player on the ice (12-3 record, 1.68 GAA, .947 SV %), not just for Vegas, but maybe for the entire tournament field.

It is safe to say that Fleury needs to be the guy that leads this team if they hope to hoist that Holy Grail. Bearing down with force will be long-time rival, Alexander Ovechkin. The winner of this match-up, may indeed determine the champion. Both are moving like freight trains towards that Conn Smythe Trophy (for playoff most valuable player) and it looks very much like this will be a winner takes all between these two combatants.

Of course it will take more than one player to stop Ovechkin. The Knights play a 60 minute game, every game like they are everywhere. Beyond speed, they have smarts on the blue line and their forwards commit to defend as well. It will be a group effort, but from day one, this franchise has been on one magical ride because they are so unified on the ice. No reason to expect them to stray from that formula now.

Rising star, Nate Schmidt (former Capital) leads the defense with almost 25 minutes per playoff game, with seasoned veteran, Daryk Engelland, logging over 22. Both need to be stout for Vegas to win. Twenty-two year old, Shea Theodore, leads all Knights defensemen with 7 playoff points.

At forward, the Knights are relentless and led by Jon Marchessault (8G, 10A) and William Karlsson (6G, 7A). Both had exceptional regular season and are playing even better in the post season, particularly on the defensive end and especially when the game is on the line. The Knights do not have a Captain, but are clearly not void of leadership. They are a classic example of the total being better than the sum of their parts.

Right wing, Reilly Smith, leads the team in post-season assists with 14. They have gotten good secondary scoring from Alex Tuch, James Neal, Erik Haula and Cody Eakin. Veteran David Perron, has been battling injuries and has yet to find the back of the net. He could very well be the next hero up for this Vegas team because that seems to be the way they do it.
A year ago this team did not exist and now they host game one of the Stanley Cup Finals. No matter how many times I say it or type it, it just doesn’t seem real. It doesn’t seem possible. Do fairy tales really come true? We will find out soon as they now stare down the league’s most hungry villain in Ovechkin and his Capitals. His much awaited date with destiny faces one more obstacle. The roadblock is not wearing glass slippers, but rather golden hockey skates. The clock struck 12 on Cinderella before the happy ending. Within two weeks, we will know if it is midnight or history. My money says this is too tall a task, but like so many, Vegas has made me wrong before and is certainly capable of doing it again with Marc-Andre Fleury holding the golden skate for one last fitting.

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