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Hockey

Column: The NHL’s newest team has given us the best story of the playoffs

The first year of the NHL’s Original 31 Era was an improbable and rousing success for the league’s newest member, the Vegas Golden Knights.

Starting on Wednesday against the Kings they will add a playoff chapter to the story of an already extraordinary season in which they finished first in the Pacific Division and played to overflow crowds at T-Mobile Arena.

The Golden Knights’ first playoff appearance is among the many intriguing story lines that will unfold when the Stanley Cup playoffs begin. Three series will open Wednesday and the remaining five will launch Thursday.

Can the Pittsburgh Penguins become the first team to pull off a three-peat since the New York Islanders won four championships in a row from 1980 through 1983? Will the Winnipeg Jets or the Toronto Maple Leafs bring the Cup home to Canada for the first time since the Montreal Canadiens triumphed in 1993? After finishing as runners-up to the Penguins last season, will the No. 1 overall Nashville Predators make this their year? Who will win the seventh all-California playoff series when the Ducks and San Jose Sharks meet starting Thursday?

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And how many pounds of chocolate did it take to make the enormous sculpture of Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury that will be on display at the Bellagio during the playoffs?

The last question is easier to answer than the first four. According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, it took two pastry chefs five weeks and 90 pounds of chocolate —carefully placed over a base of Rice Krispies treats, Styrofoam and wires — to depict Fleury down to the details of his mask. Hey, it’s Vegas. Everything is over the top.

That includes the performance of the Golden Knights, who exceeded expectations by finishing at 51-24-7 for 109 points — fifth best in the NHL — while drawing 103.9% of capacity at home. Unlike recent expansion teams before them, they had a decent talent pool to draw upon. But coach Gerard Gallant had to make disparate styles mesh and persuade his players they could negate the team’s potential shortcomings through hard work, feats he pulled off so well that he’s a top candidate for coach of the year.

“It has been more than three years since we began our initial ticket drive to see if bringing a National Hockey League franchise to Las Vegas was viable. Since that time, you have given us your support, your strength and an amazing place to call home,” owner Bill Foley said in an open letter to fans published Monday in the Review-Journal. “Words cannot express how proud and privileged we are to be ‘Vegas Born.’ ”

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The Predators won the Presidents’ Trophy for compiling the best regular-season record, but that hasn’t been a reliable indicator of future success. Only eight of 32 previous Presidents’ Trophy winners have gone on to win the Cup, the most recent among them being the 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks. The Predators clinched the trophy last Thursday at Washington — and the site is noteworthy because the Capitals finished first overall each of the previous two seasons but were eliminated in the second round each time by the Penguins. The Predators were well aware of that.

“We’ve seen especially here that the trophy doesn’t mean that much,” Nashville forward Filip Forsberg told reporters, “but I think just the home ice is going to be huge. We love playing in front of our home fans and want to do that as much as we can.”

The Ducks’ series against the Sharks will be the their second meeting and the seventh all-California NHL playoff matchup. The Ducks have faced the Kings once; the Kings have faced the Sharks four times and played the late, lamented Oakland Seals once. The winner of this season’s Ducks-Sharks encounter will take more than a few bruises into the second round.

The East seems unusually wide open. Tampa Bay was No. 1 and Boston 2 but neither finished impressively; the Lightning were 5-4-1 in their last 10 games and the Bruins were 5-3-2, including a loss in their finale that dropped them out of the top spot.

Washington, though facing a goaltending dilemma because of Braden Holtby’s struggles, might benefit from not having to carry the burden of a Presidents’ Trophy season.

“When you get down to this part of the year there is no margin for error,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper told reporters Monday. “The teams are so tight and they’re so close.”

Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy rued his team’s flat performance in its final game and said “We’ll see if that haunts us.” He added, “I believe we’ll be the 50-win team that we saw all year. We’re not going to allow one game to define us.”

For 16 teams, the defining moments are approaching this week.

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helene.elliott@latimes.com

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen


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