Tuesday, June 13, 2023 | 9:03 p.m.
The term “Cup In Six” is no longer a cute catchphrase to describe the outsized ambitions of the nascent local NHL franchise.
It’s a premonition realized. An achievement accomplished. A championship claimed.
The Vegas Golden Knights lifted the Stanley Cup Tuesday night at T-Mobile Arena after blowing out the Florida Panthers 9-3 in Game 5.
Forward Mark Stone scored his first of three goals 12 minutes into the game, giving Vegas a 1-0 lead despite Florida having mostly controlled the puck in the early going. The avalanche started soon thereafter, as the Golden Knights never trailed and went into the second intermission up 6-1 after Stone wristed in his second goal.
“It was a pretty slow start,” Stone said during the second break on the team’s radio broadcast. “I don’t know if it was nervous energy or what, but we turned it on.”
Because of his role as captain, Stone was the first to touch the Stanley Cup, or what he and his teammates have referred to as “the ultimate prize” all postseason. The first NHL championship in franchise history appropriately came in the team’s sixth year, just as owner Bill Foley targeted upon being awarded the league’s 31st team in June 2016.
Foley began talking about winning a title by the sixth year before the team even had a name, let alone any personnel. But he immediately started putting people in the right positions, including in the front office where two of his first hires were current President of Hockey Operations George McPhee and General Manager Kelly McCrimmon.
The duo succeeded wildly in June 2017’s expansion draft, selecting a group of players that reached the Stanley Cup Final in June 2018 before losing in five games to the Washington Capitals. But that initial team laid the groundwork and continued to exert its influence all the way into this year’s championship run.
Original Golden Knight Jonathan Marchessault, who was acquired from the Panthers in the expansion draft, won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Marchessault assisted on the Golden Knights’ second goal on Tuesday, a close-range tap-in by Nicolas Hague, to set a franchise record with 25 playoff points this season — 13 goals and 12 assists.
“He’s put the puck in the back of the net at a high clip, at the right times,” Stone said in a news conference before the game.
The team’s second-leading goal-scorer throughout the playoffs was fellow original Golden Knight William Karlsson, who found the net 11 times. In an ode to the Golden Knights’ history, coach Bruce Cassidy started a lineup of Marchessault, Karlsson, forward Reilly Smith, defenseman Shea Theodore and defenseman Brayden McNabb in Game 5.
Smith scored, assisted by Karlsson and Theodore, as part of the second-period onslaught.
Forward William Carrier and defenseman Zach Whitecloud were the two other players crowned champions Tuesday after being with the Golden Knights since the team’s inception.
But Vegas would have never delivered on Foley’s wish if it wasn’t for an aggressive, and oftentimes controversial, strategy of adding the best possible talent to the roster over the years. All of those big-ticket acquisitions seemed to coalesce this playoff run, overcoming their own unique hardships and navigating outside criticism to prove championship caliber.
The 31-year-old Stone has been Vegas’ best two-way player since arriving via a trade with the Ottawa Senators at the deadline in the second year but he’s recently struggled with back problems.
Stone was unsure he’d even appear in the playoffs after being assigned to long-term injured reserve and undergoing a back surgery in February — his second in less than a year.
But he rehabbed relentlessly after the latest operation and was able to return for the entire playoff run. He got his Game 5 hat trick on an empty-netter with about six minutes left to play, sending the record T-Mobile Arena crowd of 19,058 into a complete frenzy.
“He’s unbelievable,” teammate Jack Eichel said of Stone during intermission on the radio broadcast. “He’s so good at everything, and he does it every day.”
Eichel, the Golden Knights’ other frontline star next to Stone, came to Vegas after a midseason trade last year and immediately had a neck surgery that his original team, the Buffalo Sabres, vehemently opposed. Unfairly besmirched as an entitled and egocentric figure in Buffalo, the 26-year-old completely eradicated the narrative in his first career appearance in the playoffs this season.
He at times looked too unselfish, putting his scoring acumen on the back burner to lead the NHL with 20 playoff assists, including a trio in Tuesday’s clinching victory.
Vegas was proudly a defense-first team all year, and no one instilled that mentality better than top-pair blue-liner Alex Pietrangelo, who signed with the team in free agency before the 2020-2021 season. Pietrangelo proved the perfect fit in the preferred system of Cassidy, who arrived in Vegas this season after being unceremoniously fired following six years with the Boston Bruins last offseason.
Adin Hill was similarly easy to obtain as the Golden Knights traded for him shortly before the start of the season after a rash of injuries (to planned starter Robin Lehner and backup Laurent Brossoit) left them thin at goaltender. The 27-year-old former San Jose Shark and Arizona Coyote may have started the team’s fourth choice in the crease, but injuries elevated him to No. 1 midway through the playoffs and he looked the part.
He led all qualified goalies in the playoffs with a .934 save percentage and managed 31 saves on Tuesday. The Panthers, even without injured star Matthew Tkachuk, peppered him with several chances in the opening 10 minute but Hill stood strong.
“Hilly made some great saves,” Eichel said on the radio broadcast. “I thought we came out tight, weren’t moving our feet enough.”
The Golden Knights touted their depth all season, a strength that also came through in the deciding game. Role players like Hague, Nic Roy and Michael Amadio all had goals, as did recent trade acquisition Ivan Barbashev, who hadn’t scored in the first four games of the Final, and defenseman Alec Martinez, who had only one previous playoff goal this season.
“We balance minutes,” Cassidy said before the game about what makes his team special. “It starts there. We try not to overtax any one individual.”
Between the unproven players down the lineup, goalie uncertainty, new-coach questions and big-name injuries, the Golden Knights came into the season as the longest shot they’ve been to win the Cup since their inaugural season. Future prices in local sports books reached as high as 25-to-1, but those odds must not have factored in the destiny it felt like Foley’s words manufactured.
“Cup in Six” was already one of the boldest proclamations in hockey history, but now it’s also one of the most accurate. The Golden Knights are Stanley Cup champions.