NHL

Why the Stanley Cup-bound Golden Knights don't deserve your ire

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AP

Why the Stanley Cup-bound Golden Knights don't deserve your ire

In case you haven’t heard, the Vegas Golden Knights are headed to the Stanley Cup Final. It is, assuredly, just like we all predicted.

Exactly two weeks after they ended the Sharks’ season in the second round, the expansion club was at it again on Sunday. Ryan Reaves tipped Luca Sbisa’s point shot for the eventual game-winning goal, adding two more unlikely heroes to a seemingly endless, and increasingly absurd, line of them as the Golden Knights eliminated the Winnipeg Jets.

San Jose is no longer the latest footnote in Vegas’ storybook season, but any remaining hesitation from Sharks fans to come to terms with the story of the season is understandable. After all, no team won more playoff games against the Golden Knights through three rounds, and the six-game, second-round series seemed like the start of a legitimate rivalry.

Just as straightforward is the fact that San Jose had a polar-opposite expansion experience. The Sharks got to pick mostly from the dregs of the then-Minnesota North Stars, and then from a much smaller pool of players in a league that had 10 fewer teams at the time. Even considering that many of the Golden Knights’ best players were acquired in trades around the Expansion Draft and/or selected under the condition Vegas didn’t select someone else, the club was in a better position than any new team in league history.

Frankly, it should sting a bit seeing an expansion team have unprecedented success a quarter-century after the Cow Palace hosted one of the worst teams in NHL history, as well as just two years after San Jose made its first-ever appearance in the Final following years of heartbreak. But any resentment can wait until next year, as Vegas doesn’t deserve your ire in its inaugural season.

The Golden Knights’ inaugural season is kind of story transcends hockey, a hyper-regional sport followed by fans who (mostly) don’t continue to watch the playoffs once their team is eliminated. Regardless of who advances out of the East, the possibility a team that existed pretty much in name exactly a year ago having a chance to engrave its name on the bleepin’ Stanley Cup is going to give the league, and the sport, some overdue national attention.

Unless you’re in the #PleaseLikeMySport crowd, this is undoubtedly a good thing. The Stanley Cup Final is going to attract plenty of viewers asking “Is this really happening?” without having watched much, if any, hockey previously. If a few of them decide to stick around? Even better.

Plus, it’s not like a parade down the Strip makes one in San Jose any less likely in the future. Far from it, in fact. The Golden Knights would be the first team from outside of Chicago, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh to win a Stanley Cup since 2011, and the first first-time champion since the Kings in 2012.

Hockey fans love to trumpet the NHL’s parity, and if the league is truly one Where Any Team Can Win And Anything Can Happen, new teams are certainly welcome on the Stanley Cup. Even the league’s newest.

More than any year, it’s best to take the long view on this postseason, and to ultimately embrace the absurdity of it all. Sharks fans can be as frustrated as they want while the Golden Knights play for a championship and San Jose is in offseason mode.

Just save that until this ridiculous ride comes to an end.

The three things we really want in NBA, NHL conference finals

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USATSI

The three things we really want in NBA, NHL conference finals

The conference finals have been set in both the NBA and NHL, and your level of satisfaction will be defined by how quickly your team eliminates the other person’s team. Fandom is schadenfreude, after all, and being happy for yourself necessarily involves making someone you know unhappy. It is, in fact, the thing that separates us from the animals.
 
Well, that and the general sense of purpose and dignity animals have that we don’t, but that’s a story for the next installment of Species Degradation Magazine.
 
With that in mind, and with Rockets-Warriors specifically, here’s what we want – what we really want:
 
       1. For all four series – Rockets-Warriors, Celtics-Cavaliers, Jets-Golden Knights and Lightning-Capitals – to go seven games. Seven games is one of the three moments of absolute crystalline perfection in sports history, along with the bracket and the moment Arnold Rothstein thought to himself,            “Hey, let’s get the gang together and fix a World Series.” More games are better by definition, and this is not disputable.
 
       2. For all 28 games to go into overtime, again because longer games are better than shorter games. This is probably unrealistic, but we have millions of playing the lottery, daily fantasy sports and mock drafts, so reality isn’t really something we’re that interested in.
 
       3. And finally, for every road team to win every game.
 
This last one has actually never happened (the closest any series ever went to going full overtime was Coyotes-Blackhawks in 2012, when the first five games went bonus), but it will have an important feature that should happen.
 
The haunting scenes of a building emptying in 40 seconds, morose fans filing out with their hopes mauled and their dreams crushed, with only the thought that a league executive handing the trophy to the other guys will be booed as comfort.
 
And why is this important? Because crowd shots of delirious fans are tiresome and repetitive and even phony because fans, like players, mug to the camera way too quickly now, and nobody needs that.
 
Of course, nobody needs shots of children crying hysterically (and on cue, in most cases) at the sight of their favorite team losing, but at least the kid is learning a useful lesson about life – namely, that it is a series of modified employment disappointments, followed by a hip replacement and then the debilitation of old age, and that your favorite team will help you with none of it.
 
We can’t say that there would be upsets to warm one’s heart because in the case of the two NBA series, the favorite either by Vegas or pundit definition is the lower seed. And in the NHL, while it would mean that Vegas would win the Stanley Cup, there would be plenty of people who would grouse that the fan base there didn’t earn it by learning about suffering – in the same way that Colorado Avalanche fans caught hell for getting a Stanley Cup champion in 1995, their first year after lifting the team from Quebec.
 
And that’s the underlying story here – for every happy fan base, there are 29 or 30 grinding their teeth in envy and hatred, and only a few can have the visceral satisfaction of their coach being fired. And envy and hatred fuels sports fandom far more than joy and celebration.
 
So let’s go deep, and give everyone what they want until they don’t want it any more. The maximum number of games, the most minutes beyond regulation it is legal to have without players collapsing in cramping heaps, and fans grousing between games about what is wrong with their otherwise wildly successful favorite team.
 
It’s nirvana, I tell you. You just have never thought of it that way before.

At times, Sharks showed they were better than Vegas, they 'just didn’t do it long enough'

At times, Sharks showed they were better than Vegas, they 'just didn’t do it long enough'

SAN JOSE -- Tomas Hertl had the first goal of Game 6 on his stick with about nine minutes left in the first period.

With the Vegas Golden Knights in the midst of a line change, San Jose defenseman Brent Burns back-handed a blueline-to-blueline to a wide open Hertl. Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury challenged, but Hertl’s shot beat Fleury over his right shoulder.

The puck then pinged off the crossbar, and Hertl fed the rebound to Logan Couture in the slot. But Hertl’s pass rolled helplessly off of Couture’s stick, and Vegas dodged a first-period bullet.

The 0-0 scoreline held into the second period, where the Golden Knights scored twice en route to a 3-0 Game 6 win on Sunday, their fourth of the series. That left the Sharks to ruminate on early, missed opportunities on the night their season ended.

“We just didn’t find a way to put any pucks in the net,” captain Joe Pavelski said. “We had some opportunities early; a couple of power plays and some really good looks. Whether the puck spun off, or [we] got a skate on it, or whatever kind of happened … I think our opportunities early were there to take that lead and get control of that game.”

San Jose out-chanced Vegas 17-9 in all situations in the first period, according to Natural Stat Trick. That included a 9-5 edge at even strength, but the Sharks were held scoreless in the opening 20 minutes for the fifth time in six games.

They finished the series with a first-period goal-differential of minus-four across all situations, despite out-attempting (137-121), outshooting (71-60), and out-chancing the Golden Knights (62-57) in the six first periods.

Fleury stopped 70 of 71 first-period shots in total, good for a .986 first-period save percentage.

“I thought we had some good starts,” Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer said. “Had some quality chances early in a lot of those games. [I thought Fleury] was great in a lot of those games, allowed them to get their feet under them, and we were chasing five of the six games.”

That was the case again in Game 6. As statistician Darin Stephens noted with an assist from Natural Stat Trick, Vegas controlled play the rest of the way after absorbing San Jose’s early offense.

The Golden Knights especially stymied the Sharks in the third period. As was the case for most of the matchups between the two clubs this season, Vegas was the better team over the final 20 minutes, and held San Jose to just seven, five-on-five shots as its season wound down.

Trailing by two, the Sharks only shot three times in the first 13-and-a-half minutes of the third period.

“I think if we had to do it over again, we wouldn’t have [had our defensemen join the rush] so early in the third,” Couture said. “We should have gotten back to what led to success this series, and that was chipping [the puck] in, going to get it, forcing them to play in the [defensive] zone and taking pucks to the net, and for some reason, we didn’t want to do that.”

With better finishing at the start, and better starts to their finishes, San Jose may very well still be playing. Instead, the story of the season continues unabated, and Vegas is deservedly headed to the Western Conference finals.

“For periods of the series, I thought we were the better team,” Couture said. “We played the game we know we’re capable of. We showed we could beat them.

“We just didn’t do it long enough.”