Vegas first to clinch playoff berth in inaugural season since '79-80

Updated: March 27, 2018, 3:10 AM ET
By Emily Kaplan | ESPN

The Vegas Golden Knights have defied the odds -- they are going to the Stanley Cup playoffs.

With a 4-1 victory over the Colorado Avalanche on Monday night, Vegas became the first NHL team to clinch a playoff berth in its inaugural season since the Oilers and Whalers did so in 1979-80.

The Oilers, whose roster included Wayne Gretzky, and the Whalers, featuring Gordie Howe, came from the WHA following a merger. The Golden Knights entered the NHL this season after owner Bill Foley paid a $500 million expansion fee.

Though their expansion draft format was more favorable than previous expansion years, the Golden Knights opened the season with the worst odds -- 500-1 -- to win the Stanley Cup, according to the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. Those odds have now improved to 7-1.

Asked about the team slogan of "playoffs in three [seasons], Cup in six," and whether he thought that was realistic, head coach Gerard Gallant said it "definitely scared me" when he first heard it.

"To make the playoffs is real tough," said Gallant, who earned his 200th career coaching victory Monday. "For an expansion team to make the playoffs, it's incredible."

Amid the celebration in the Knights' locker room, several players and coaches also thought back to the beginning of the inaugural season, when the city of Las Vegas was reeling from a tragedy.

Gallant, Foley, veteran goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and leading scorer William Karlsson were among those who spoke about the Oct. 1 mass shooting that killed 58 and injured hundreds more on the Vegas Strip.

"It was a disaster that night," Foley said. "It was a terrible massacre. We changed our initial opening night ceremonies. I thought we really connected with the town -- I'm so proud of the whole team. From then on, it was pretty unbelievable. We got off to that fast start. We've survived a lot of challenges this year, besides being an expansion team who nobody picked to do anything."

Added Gallant about the team's Oct. 10 home opener: "We always go back to our first home game. It wasn't about our team winning, it wasn't about nothing -- it was about the first responders and the tragedy that happened the week before that. It was a tough way to start our season, but I think the guys and everybody supported it well. They all came out and played an unbelievable game that first night, and I just think it carried over.''

Vegas Golden KnightsJeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty ImagesThe Knights entered the season at 500-1 odds to win the Stanley Cup. They are now at 7-1, according to the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook.

Vegas is currently in first place in the Pacific Division. With 103 points, the Knights are only four points back of the Nashville Predators in the race for the Presidents' Trophy for the league's best record.

Of 64 expansion teams among the four major U.S. sports leagues since 1960, Vegas is the first to even have a winning record.

While Vegas is the fifth NHL expansion team -- not including mergers like the Oilers and Whalers -- to make the playoffs since the league first spread its wings beyond the Original Six in 1967-68, the other four did so with somewhat of an asterisk attached.

The first six expansions teams, in 1967-68, were all placed in the West Division together, with the Original Six making up the East. That not only guaranteed that four of the expansion teams would make the playoffs -- despite none of them having a winning record -- but that one of them would be in the Stanley Cup Final.

The only non-NHL expansion team to make the playoffs in that time frame is the 1966-67 Chicago Bulls, who finished 33-48 in their first NBA season.

Interestingly, the Golden Knights are in the playoffs in a season in which four of the Original Six teams -- Detroit, Chicago, Montreal and the New York Rangers -- will be sitting out the postseason.

"It doesn't bring anybody back, and we don't heal anybody," Fleury, reflecting on the Vegas tragedy, said of the playoff berth. "But I hope that we've changed people's mind a bit and get them to come here and have a good time at T-Mobile [Arena] and be proud of their hometown team."

Vegas has played well at home, going 27-9-2 at T-Mobile Arena, and has sold seats at 103.7 percent capacity, third-best in the NHL behind the Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild.

"It feels pretty incredible. It's good to clinch it on home ice; they have been with us since Day 1," Karlsson said of the Vegas fans. "It's been a fun ride. We had a great start, and that sort of set us off for the rest of the year.

"I think the whole city came together. The fans have been great, and they've helped us a lot. They fired us up, and it was momentum all the way.''

Vegas has surged behind career years from players such as Karlsson (40 goals, previous career high was nine), winger Jonathan Marchessault (72 points, previous career high was 51) and winger David Perron (66 points, previous career high was 57).

Fleury, a three-time Stanley Cup winner with the Pittsburgh Penguins, has missed some time with injury but has been impressive with a .931 save percentage and 2.12 goals-against average in 43 starts.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Emily Kaplan

ESPN

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