Friday, June 8, 2018

The '99 Sabres and this Vegas team have a lot in common.

Published by, 6-7-2018

Plans for a parade in Las Vegas celebrating the Golden Knights inaugural season, regardless of the outcome of the Stanley Cup Finals, have been put on hold temporarily while the series is still going on. The Clark County Commission had put the parade up for discussion without the involvement of the hockey club but did an about face saying that the planning would be lead by the team at the appropriate time.

With Vegas staring at a 3-1 deficit heading into Game-4 tonight, the odds are stacked heavily against  having a victory parade with Stanley Cup in tow. They'll need to run the table on a talented Washington Capitals team that has top-end talent, is enjoying great goaltending and is coached by Barry Trotz, who's coached in over 1,500 NHL games and has over 800 wins including 39 in the playoffs.

It's been a helluva run for Vegas as they barreled through the western conference losing only three times and leaving their opponents left to wonder what the hell just hit them. The Los Angeles Kings were swept by Vegas in the first round, the Anaheim Ducks won two games in the second round and the high powered Winnipeg Jets lost their Western Conference Finals series in five games. The Capitals themselves felt the full force of the Golden Knights desert storm losing the opener of the series by a 6-4 score at T-Mobile Arena in Vegas.

All of it, including a Pacific Division championship and the league's fifth-best record (109 points,) was done by an expansion team using unprotected players from the NHL's 30 other clubs. It's the greatest run by a top-end talent-bereft team since the 1999 Buffalo Sabres did so under an endearing moniker as "The hardest working team in hockey."

Ottawa Senators coach Guy Boucher laid out what is team would face in their first matchup with the Golden Knights very early in the season. "It's very simple. They are a meat and potatoes team, that is absolutely relentless," said Boucher of Vegas back in early November via "That's it, that's how they get their success. This is probably the hardest working team in the league. Period."

Boucher went on to say that Knights came into the league without a lot of talent, but they had a team flush with experience where they could do what a lot of other teams couldn't--roll four lines and three defensive pairs. "They've got guys that are not only good NHLers, but guys that contribute. They're all hard working guys, and I think you can see they're on a mission."

The Golden Knights are lead by William Karlsson (CLB,) Jonathan Marchessault (FLA) and James Neal (NSH) up front and three-time Stanley Cup winning goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (PIT) in net. Their top-pairing on defense consisted of Nate Schmidt, who was with Washington last season in a third-pairing role and was often a healthy scratch, and Brayden McNabb who struggled for minutes with the Kings before he was left unprotected and the Knights grabbed him.

This was a group dubbed 'The Golden Misfits' by rugged checking forward Ryan Reaves, a player labeled a dinosaur because of his old-school style of play who'd been cast aside by the Pittsburgh Penguins in a trade. Vegas is lead by a coach in Gerard Gallant who might be construed as the ultimate throwaway. Gallant had coached the Florida Panthers to a franchise record 103 points in 2015-16 only to be kicked to the curb the following season. Literally. Gallant was fired while the Panthers were in Carolina and he was photographed with his bags on the curb hailing a taxi. He's kind of like King Moonracer on the Island of Misfit Toys.

What Gallant is doing isn't rocket science. In an age of analytics where numbers and schematics flood the game-plan, he kept it simple while molding his misfits into a force. Gallant is a players coach who expects his team to go full bore every shift of every game with the knowledge that his goaltending had to hold the fort, which Fleury and an array of other goalies did. From the get-go there's been a trust factor between coach, skaters and goalies.

In a nutshell, Vegas is not the most talented team but they bust their butts as a teamm are motivated by their coach and have been rewarded for their hard work and determination.

Back in the late-90's the Buffalo Sabres were in the same boat. Up-front they had the talented Miroslav Satan leading the charge and had Michael "Captain Crunch" Peca as their on-ice leader. The Sabres had Jason Wooley and Alexei Zhitnik on defense and a guy named Dominik Hasek in net who's considered one of the greatest goalies of all time. Lindy Ruff was their head coach and he, like Gallant, was a players coach. Ruff's players would run through a brick wall for him and it got them to Game-6 of the Stanley Cup Finals that year. On their way to the Finals the Sabres rolled through the Eastern Conference by sweeping Ottawa then defeating the Boston Bruins in six games before closing out the East in five games over the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Even taking away the exact same records heading into the Finals, the Sabres and the Golden Knights are virtually the same team in different eras. Both played to their strengths, worked hard, relied on depth and goaltending, and played their style to an extreme. The Sabres had to battle through a clutch and grab era where toughness and grit were the norm and they did so with one of the toughest teams in hockey from top to bottom. The Knights play in an era of speed and not only are they one of the fastest teams in the league, they play the game fast. Both teams were relentless in their play and made it extremely difficult for the opposition and at the root of it all for both teams was what can only be described as an onslaught from the drop of the puck.

However, the rule in sports is that talent usually prevails. In '99 Dallas was lead by four Hall of Famers in Mike Modano, Brett Hull, Joe Nieuwendyk and goalie Ed Belfour, plus a little help from a blown Game-6 call. The Washington Capitals are lead by future Hall of Famer Alexander Ovechkin and a slew of others that are considered some of the best at their positions including goalie Brayden Holtby, defenseman John Carlson and forwards TJ Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetzov.

None of this should take away from the accomplishments of either the Sabres or the Golden Knights. Nearly 20 years ago Ruff stood in front of City Hall as 20,000 Sabres fans thanked the team for a remarkable run (while also coining 'No Goal') and many more will be on hand in Vegas as they celebrate the team's historic inaugural season. Both were unexpected successes that made it far beyond anyone's expectations. What both teams lacked in talent, they more than made up for in heart. They both were lead by supreme motivators behind the bench, great goaltending and they fed off of their respective roles as underdogs.

Although the Caps still have one more win before relegating the Golden Knights to also-ran status, this Vegas team should be damn proud of what they've accomplished in their first season. An historic NHL season worthy of a parade, even without the Cup.

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