Las Vegas wanted the NHL. And now the city has the Stanley Cup | Vegas Golden Knights

A month after Las Vegas was awarded an NHL team in the summer of 2016, a local paper held a series of, in the publication’s own words, “wildly unscientific” unofficial polls asking its readers to pick the franchise’s name. The Black Knights, the Knights, and the Neon Knights were all among the early choices. But only the Knights made it past the second round of voting, proving less popular than Scorpions and the eventual winner, the Outlaws. The Knights name – and variations of it – wasn’t a winner.

It is now. The Vegas Golden Knights are Stanley Cup champions, taking home the coveted trophy with a commanding 9-3 win over the Florida Panthers Tuesday evening in Las Vegas. And while the speed with which the Golden Knights have climbed to the top of the NHL has been surprising, to many (this was the franchise’s second visit to the Final in its first six years of existence) it’s exactly what team owner Bill Foley promised in 2017. It was a bold prediction, given the only other team to ever do it were the Edmonton Oilers with some kid named Wayne Gretzky.

But six years later, here we are.

We were almost here sooner. Vegas made an improbable storybook run to the Finals against the Washington Capitals in their inaugural season in 2018, only to lose the Cup on home ice. And while Vegas has remained a contender since that time, only missing the playoffs once since they joined the league, the road the team traveled wasn’t necessarily shining with glory. In their dogged pursuit of a championship, Vegas established a reputation in the NHL as a team willing to disrupt locker room cohesion, spend with almost wanton abandon, and ship off perfectly good players for what seemed at the time little potential gain – guys like Nate Schmidt or Marc-Andre Fleury. On Tuesday, the Knights could call on just five of the original 20 players they took on at their formation. It was evidence of relatively high turnover in an relentless pursuit of either a winning team or, viewed more cynically, cap space.

Few will argue now that those many moves over the years weren’t worth it. The Golden Knights stretched their wallets wide open, with eight starting players making more than $5m this season, including Jack Eichel, Mark Stone, and Alex Pietrangelo, who are signed at over $8m a year each over long stretches. But those moves also meant there were already nine Stanley Cup rings on the Vegas bench at the start of Tuesday’s game – experience that did, in the end, pay dividends for the Golden Knights.

Their win over Florida was nearly total, rampaging the Panthers in much the same way the latter had teams in the East down the stretch. Their approach was simple and effective, including physical play that frustrated a Panthers team that had, to this point, been able to run roughshod over opponents. Vegas also boasts perhaps the best defensive corps in the league, which protected goaltender Adin Hill and destroyed Florida’s power play. The Panthers had been able to convert roughly a third of the time with the man advantage in their previous three rounds but they failed to score a single goal on the power play against Vegas.

Tuesday night was a perfect example of Vegas’ dominance. Florida looked as if they were playing short-handed the entire game, and to some extent they were. After exiting Game 4 with a mystery injury (and only returning briefly to the ice), Panthers star forward Matthew Tkachuk was a scratch for Game 5. Tkachuk had been a key factor for the Panthers through the first three rounds, leading his team in many core stat categories and, arguably, single-handedly giving Florida a semblance of depth.

His absence was no doubt part of the reason Florida looked unlike the team that had dispensed so easily with Boston, Toronto, and Carolina. But in reality, Florida had had difficulty solving Vegas even with Tkachuk in the lineup. The somewhat chaotic style of offence Florida had used to great success for three rounds was suddenly ineffective against good defence and a goalie on as hot a streak as Bobrovsky (who Vegas had already chased from his net on their way to a 7-2 win in Game 2).

Florida looked, well, a bit like the Panthers of the regular season. Back in the fall, the Panthers were inconsistent, winning occasionally by large margins, but losing more frequently – also by large margins. For a while, the Panthers were struggling to break the .500 mark, and, even though they improved down the stretch, they still relied partly on others’ losses to guarantee their spot in the postseason. None of which takes anything away from what they accomplished once they got there. Florida were a force in the East, wreaking havoc from the moment they clawed their way back into Round 1 against Boston. But Vegas changed that, and once again – especially on Tuesday night – Florida morphed back into an uneven, undisciplined squad backed by unreliable goaltending.

But perhaps it’s only right that after spending so much time lately in Florida (though across the state in Tampa), the Cup should settle out West for a bit, moving on from Denver to explore somewhere new. Vegas is still somewhat uncharted territory for the NHL. The league’s foray into Nevada wasn’t necessarily the first by a professional league (Canadians will remember the CFL’s ill-fated American adventure of the 1990s, which included the Las Vegas Posse), but it was the most significant. Since the Golden Knights arrived, Las Vegas has also gained an NFL team via relocation, and they could get an MLB franchise soon too. And although NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said the city is “not on the front burner” for the league, he also admitted that it will “make a great location for a franchise one day.”

It should not go unnoticed that Vegas fans broke tradition and didn’t boo NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman as he stood on the ice to present the Stanley Cup to Stone, the Vegas captain. It’s possible that they were merely all being very polite, but more likely it’s a testament to how new most of the fans in Vegas likely are. Many of them probably don’t remember, nor would care about a lockout from 1994, let alone still harbour historical grudges from it. For Bettman, the silence is probably meaningful. Even if his expansion gambles, on Vegas and more broadly, haven’t exactly all paid off, he’s arguably now at least broken even.

As it courted the NHL nearly a decade ago, the prospective ownership group in Las Vegas set up a website to outline its long-term plans and goals. It had a slogan: Vegas Wants Hockey. Vegas got hockey. Now hockey has officially taken Vegas.