WASHINGTON — It's incredible. Unbelievable, really. Maybe the best sports story in this country and the sport of hockey since 1980's Miracle on Ice.
And, as a side note, if the Lightning reaches the Stanley Cup final, everyone in the country outside of Tampa Bay will be hoping the Lightning loses.
That's because the rest of the nation will be rooting for the other team: the Vegas Golden Knights. They're a lovable expansion team that has reached the Stanley Cup final. Read that sentence again. An expansion team — a team made up of castoffs and misfits that no one else wanted — will play for the Stanley Cup.
It's so remarkable that even the Lightning and Caps, teams wrapped up in their own quest to reach the Stanley Cup final, couldn't help but notice.
"They're a wonderful story," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "There's been talk of 'How could that happen?' or whatever. I'll tell you how it happened: They got an owner that hired an unreal GM and they got an unreal GM that hired an unreal coach. They were all left to do their jobs. They were given a framework to deal with. They could've screwed it up or they could've done really well and they chose to do really well. They played within the rules that were given to them, and this is what you get."
What you get is a Cinderella story for the ages. Or is it?
"It's a success story is what it is," Cooper said. "It's not a Cinderella story. I know the gentlemen that are involved, the GM and coach, and I couldn't be more proud of the guys of the job they've done. They deserved to get there."
Sure, the expansion rules were bent in such a way that Vegas had a better chance than previous expansion teams of getting good players. Previous expansions allowed NHL teams to protect more players.
Still, it's not like the Golden Knights were afforded a bunch of superstars. You're still talking about, mostly, a bunch of role players.
"You have depth and depth players in this league make a difference, and they have almost everybody on their team with NHL experience," Lightning forward Chris Kunitz said. "When you have guys with confidence … given the opportunity, they've all thrived. Crazy story line. I don't think anybody would think that that's where that team got to. Hey, that's a credit to them and their coaching staff and their players to all rally around each other."
Rallying around each other is a key. They all came together knowing that they weren't wanted by their previous teams. They all arrived with chips on their shoulder. And they were all living the same experience.
"There's nothing tighter than the first-year group because there's no preconceived notion," Caps coach Barry Trotz said. "Leadership is not in place. Nobody knows where to live. All those things are galvanizing."
It started off as a nice little feel-good story. As the season progressed, most hockey people kept waiting for the Golden Knights to cool off and eventually fade out of the playoff picture. Not only did they make the playoffs, they nearly finished with the best record in hockey.
And they have blazed through the playoffs, sweeping the Kings, beating the Sharks in six and then dusting off a really good Jets team in a mere five games in the Western Conference final.
Plenty of players have shined and had terrific seasons, including former Lightning forward Jonathan Marchessault, who was second on the team in points in the regular season with 75 and leads Vegas in postseason scoring with eight goals and 10 assists in 15 games.
It also helps that they have a really good goalie. Former Penguins Stanley Cup winner Marc-Andre Fleury has revived his career in Vegas.
Is Kunitz, who played with Fleury in Pittsburgh, surprised?
"Definitely not," Kunitz said. "(He's) a guy that enjoyed being in practice and competing against you. He never wanted to let you score a goal (and) it could be an hour-and-a-half after practice, whatever it was. I always enjoyed his smile, the way he competed even when things got tough. He was always one of the best teammates you could ever ask for. … I think that really engages his team to play at another level."
Fleury has the Golden Knights at the highest level it can get: the Stanley Cup final.
Contact Tom Jones at [email protected] Follow @tomwjones