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Column: Script flips on magical season for the Knights

June 8, 2018
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Vegas Golden Knights right wing Alex Tuch, right, consoles left wing Erik Haula after they lost to the Washington Capitals 4-3 in Game 5 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Finals Thursday, June 7, 2018, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Their story had been too good, their season way too magical.

Then the script was suddenly flipped. And the storybook ending the Vegas Golden Knights had desperately hoped for became a story of another kind for the Washington Capitals.

Two goals in the third period gave the Caps their first Stanley Cup title, ending 43 years of futility and sending a surprisingly large contingent of red-clad Washington fans into a frenzy. They stood and cheered as the Caps passed the Stanley Cup around, enjoying a scene that up to now no Las Vegas tourist had ever imagined.

A few minutes earlier, thousands of Knights fans were on their feet cheering for their team. The game was over, but “Go Knights Go” reverberated through the arena on the Las Vegas Strip.

Both teams had something to celebrate. But only Washington would be drinking out of the Stanley Cup.

“When you get this close to the cup it’s hard,” Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. “It doesn’t happen too often. It’s very disappointing.”

An inaugural season like no other ended on a bittersweet note for an expansion team like no other. The first major sports team in this gambling city bucked the odds until the end, but in the end this was Washington’s championship to win.

It was the Caps who won every playoff series coming from behind. It was the Caps who found a way to win in the third period when things seemed to be going the Knights way.

“We got angry and mean,” Washington coach Barry Trotz said. “Even when they got an extra timeout when the clock broke our guys were like, we got this. There’s not a chance they will score.”

It was the Knights, though, who bonded with a city and thrilled fans who before October began knew little more about hockey than it was the fastest game on ice.

They played into June, this collection of Golden Misfits, something no one could have imagined for a team that barely had any players a year ago. The temperature outside was close to 100 degrees for Game 5 but hockey worked in the desert and it worked in a city where you don’t have to go far to place a bet on the team.

And the bet is that this is a franchise that won’t have to wait 43 years to raise a Stanley Cup of its own.

“We came up short but I’m sure in a few days we’ll come up with a lot of positives about the season,” defenseman Deryk Engelland said. “Right now it’s the worst feeling ever. You never want to lose any game, but especially at this point.”

A season that began somberly in the wake of the massacre of 58 people just down the street from the T-Mobile Arena ended 102 games later with a community continuing to heal and a team that far exceeded expectations on and off the ice.

It was Engelland who stood before the crowd at the first home game and told them, “We are Vegas strong,” a message that carried over on the ice. The Knights won their division, and were 12-3 in the playoffs coming into the Final, confounding the hockey experts at every turn.

When they won the first game of the series it looked like the tale of an expansion team and its city would soar to new levels. But the Caps came back to win four straight, including the 4-3 win that capped off their own improbable run.

“No one gave us a chance from the start,” said forward David Perron. “I thought when I got picked in the draft that Vegas would be a fun place to be but the team wouldn’t do much. It’s been a great ride.”

While the Capitals were enjoying a lengthy postgame celebration on the ice, the Knights filtered through a somber locker room, talking softly about great times and a painful ending. On the verge of doing something historic, they lost their way and the price to pay for it was another team passing the Cup around on their ice.

“It was a phenomenal year and in a couple days we’ll think about that,” Knights coach Gerard Gallant said. “Every day was fun for us.”

A magical season, yes. But it also won’t be long before the reality sinks in that teams just don’t get to the Stanley Cup Final every year.

All the Knights had to do was look at the team celebrating on the ice to understand that.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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