By MARK ANDERSON AP Sports Writer
LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley was aggressive from the beginning, saying he wanted to win the Stanley Cup in six years.
Vegas nearly won it the first year, making the Stanley Cup Final before losing in five games to the Washington Capitals. For the players on that team, high expectations came from the top and came early.
“Maybe (Foley) saw something that we didn’t see,” said Jonathan Marchessault, one of the players on that 2017-18 team.
Marchessault and his Vegas teammates have the opportunity to make good on the owner’s projection. The Knights, who are in their sixth season, take a 3-1 series lead into Tuesday’s Stanley Cup Final game against the Florida Panthers.
Meaning the Stanley Cup will be in T-Mobile Arena for the second time. The first time was in 2018 when Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals skated around the rink holding the cherished prize.
The Knights have their own version of the Original Six, the half-dozen members still in the Vegas dressing room who were on that inaugural club. They called themselves the Golden Misfits, a collection of players assembled from teams around the league through the expansion draft and trades.
The six Misfits have ingrained in their collective memory of coming so close to what would have been a shocking championship, and they have been working ever since to get back to that point. Those players are careful to point out that no celebrations can take place unless they beat the Panthers.
“It would be sweet, but at the same time, we can’t get ahead of ourselves,” said Shea Theodore, an original Knight. “It’s good to be at this point, but at the same time, it’s not done. We can talk about that after, but our focus is on going to work for 60 minutes. I feel like if we’re on top of our game, then we should be good.”
The Misfits have their fingerprints all over these playoffs.
Marchessault is the overwhelming favorite, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, to win the Conn Smythe Trophy for MVP of the NHL playoffs. His 13 goals are tied for the league postseason high as are his 24 points.
William Karlsson has scored 11 goals, and his defense has been key. Coach Bruce Cassidy usually rolls his four lines, but played a little bit of a matchup game in the second-round series against the Edmonton Oilers by often putting Karlsson’s line on the ice with Connor McDavid.
Theodore’s nine assists are third among playoff defensemen. He snapped a 27-game goal drought with a key score in Game 1 against Florida and had an assist.
William Carrier, Brayden McNabb and Reilly Smith also made important contributions.
“All the guys have stepped out, had big moments and played solid,” McNabb said. “I think it kind of (speaks) to the depth on our team. When you have that buy-in, it’s a pretty hard team to beat.”
Vegas has been tough to beat from the beginning.
Facing the usual low expectations of an expansion team, the bond between team and city began to be forged after the mass shooting on Oct. 1, 2017, which initially claimed 58 lives. The death total from what in Las Vegas is commonly referred to as One October has since been revised to 60.
More than providing a distraction for a hurting city, the Knights won from the beginning. They surprisingly made the playoffs and then went 12-3 in the first three rounds to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
After falling short against the Capitals, management decided to begin taking apart the team and setting the stage to bring in high-profile players, eventually adding the likes of Mark Stone, Jack Eichel and Alex Pietrangelo. The Knights also are on the third coach despite making the postseason each year but once.
This season’s team bears little resemblance to the first. Except for those six remaining players.
“We came that close in the first year, but there are a lot of guys in this room that have been playing a long time, a lot of hard games, a lot of battles trying to get to this moment,” Theodore said.
Foley set the expectations from beginning.
Playoffs in three. Cup in six.
“After we lost in the Final the first year, Bill said, ‘OK, Stanley Cup in three,’” Smith said. “I don’t know if that got published, but we’ve felt we’ve had the team every year to push and to challenge for the Stanley Cup. We’re in a better spot today, but there’s a lot of work to be done.”
PANTHERS USED TO PLAYING WITH INJURIES
The Panthers took the ice for Monday’s practice without several key players, most notably Matthew Tkachuk.
The Panthers also were seemingly without any concern as they prepare for Game 5 with their backs to the wall.
“We haven’t been healthy all year,” said Florida forward Anthony Duclair, who left Game 4 briefly, and practiced Monday. “So I mean, to be honest, a lot of people have stepped up in the right moments all season long and done a great job and that’s why we’re here in this position right now.
“We’re all very confident, and whoever is playing we know we got a lot of depth on this team, we got a lot of confidence. We showed that in the first round, and I think that’s definitely gonna help us confidence-wise going into tomorrow.”
That was the common theme in the Panthers’ locker room after practice, hanging their hats on overcoming a 3-1 series deficit in the opening round against the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Boston Bruins.
“Everyone’s in a really good mood and seems pretty light, so that’s nice to see,” Panthers center Sam Bennett said. “A lot of it comes from that Boston series. We know we’ve done it before and we’re capable. So just that experience in the past definitely gives us that confidence.”
This time, however, it’ll take a lot more than hockey’s so-called “puck luck” in what’s been a hard-hitting, physically challenging, brawl-filled series.
And with Tkachuk ailing, Duclair coming off a game his shifts were limited down the stretch, Brandon Montour and Nick Cousins also taking Monday off, and the relatively healthy Golden Knights eager to wrap things up in their own barn, it will take a Herculean effort from Coach Paul Maurice’s bunch.
Maurice ran down a laundry list of situations the Panthers have faced all season, missing different players at different times, and said preparations for a game like this started months ago.
“You’ve had your people out of the lineup and important people out of the lineup and you found ways to be successful, so you have that belief. If none of that’s happened to you all year, the first time an important guy comes out of the lineup it’s a big deal,” Maurice said.
“But being that everybody’s playing tomorrow, as of today, we don’t have to worry about that,” he added with his trademark smirk.
But facing the high-octane Golden Knights at T-Mobile Arena won’t be a laughing matter.
They outscored Florida in Games 1 and 2 by a combined 12-4 margin and rank second in the playoffs with 3.82 goals per home game, a slight uptick from the 3.20 the Knights averaged in Vegas during the regular season.
Tkachuk is tied for the playoff lead in points with Vegas’ Marchessault, each with 24. But while the Panthers only have one skater with more than 17 points during the postseason, the Knights have four.
The key intangible for the Panthers could come down to goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who went from allowing two or fewer goals in eight consecutive playoff games to allowing 16 over his last five – a goals-against average of 3.57.
With the Panthers sporting a 3-0 record in elimination games this postseason – all in the Boston series – they’re confident in their veteran netminder but also know whoever is skating in front of him must do their part.
“I think Bob’s been unreal for us the whole playoffs,” Florida defenseman Gustav Forsling said. “He saved us a bunch of times, so I think we need to play a little better around him, help him out a little bit more.”
Added Panthers center Staal: “We won some key games at key times with important pieces out of our lineup. So however we look tomorrow, I know we’ll have confidence in who we are and the guys that are out there.”
AP Sports Writer W.G. Ramirez contributed to this story.