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Column: It wasn’t supposed to happen this way, but the Golden Knights are bound for the Stanley Cup Final

The Vegas Golden Knights began their first NHL season with more hope than certainty. Players accepted general manager George McPhee’s suggestion they should think of themselves as being wanted by their new team instead of rejects who had been set adrift in the expansion draft, and they soon developed a sense of camaraderie. Their goal was to be competitive. That seemed like a reach.

The Golden Misfits, as they call themselves, became united through their early-season triumphs and through the sorrow they shared with a grieving community after the concert shootings that killed 58 people and injured hundreds of others last Oct. 1. Before their home debut nine days later defenseman Deryk Engelland — who has lived there since his minor league days — told the crowd at T-Mobile Arena the team would be “Vegas Strong.” No one knew that would be true in so many ways.

On Sunday, Engelland’s teammates chose him to accept the Clarence Campbell Bowl, awarded to the champion of the Western Conference, after the Golden Knights completed a five-game triumph over the Jets with a 2-1 decision at Bell MTS Place in Winnipeg. The misfits will play in the Stanley Cup Final, continuing a story that’s among the most improbable in any sport, in any era.

“I’m just proud of our team,” Vegas forward James Neal, who played for runner-up Nashville in the Cup Final a year ago, told reporters in Winnipeg. “It came together quickly. We believed in each other and we believed in ourselves. Every single guy up and down the lineup chipped in. It’s a true team.”

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There’s no higher compliment in hockey. And the Golden Knights deserved it after they followed their first-place finish in the Pacific Division with a sweep of the Kings, a six-game victory over the San Jose Sharks, and a four-game winning streak to finish off the Jets, who had the NHL’s second-best record this season.

“In the end, when you add it all up they were good. They were real good,” said Jets coach Paul Maurice, whose team was held to six goals in the last four games by the acrobatics of Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. It didn’t help that his team was usually in the unaccustomed position of chasing the game, especially after the Jets had to play seven games to get past No. 1 Nashville in the second round.

The Golden Knights scored first Sunday when a Winnipeg pass caromed off the skate of Vegas forward Ryan Carpenter and directly to Alex Tuch, who blasted it past Connor Hellebuyck at 5:11 of the first period. The Jets tied it at 17:14 on a blast by Josh Morrissey, but Winnipeg native Ryan Reaves put Vegas ahead for good at 13:21 of the second period when he tipped a shot by former Ducks defenseman Luca Sbisa. Fleury made 31 saves; he stopped 129 of 134 shots in the last four games.

Vegas’ opponent in the Final could be decided Monday if the Tampa Bay Lightning defeat the Washington Capitals in the East final. A seventh game, if necessary, would be played on Wednesday at Tampa. The Lightning (113 regular-season points) would have home-ice advantage over Vegas (109), but the Golden Knights would have home ice in the unlikely event the Capitals (105 points) win in seven.

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Who will have home-ice advantage in the Cup Final is the last discussion anyone expected the Golden Knights to be involved in at this stage of the season. But here they are, and they’ve earned it.

It’s true they benefited from favorable rules that left more talent available to them than to previous expansion teams, but McPhee made the most of every possible edge. He snared productive center Erik Haula when he agreed to take Tuch and leave the Wild’s defense alone, and he grabbed 30-goal scorer Jonathan Marchessault and agreed to take Reilly Smith off the hands of Florida GM Dale Tallon. Marchessault and Smith form two-thirds of Vegas’ top line; they flank William Karlsson, whose 43 goals easily eclipsed everyone Columbus protected instead of him.

Still, talent doesn’t guarantee success. McPhee and his staff sought speed and character, and hoped they could get production from players who hadn’t been put in the right roles before. Coach Gerard Gallant, with his intuitive touch and four-line mentality, coaxed career-best seasons out of many players and didn’t let them feel sorry for themselves when injuries forced the team to resort to its fifth-string goalie in November. Gallant didn’t accept the notion expansion teams should be terrible, and so neither did his players. Remember when he was fired by the Panthers in 2016 and was photographed taking a taxi to the Carolina airport? He deserves a limo now, though he’d probably decline and keep his seat on the team bus.

That bus is heading toward the Cup Final, as inconceivable as that would have seemed a short time ago. “All these records and everything, it doesn’t mean anything if you’re not the last team standing,” Marchessault said, “and we have a lot of gas left. We’re going to keep doing what we do best and it’s just prove people wrong.”

helene.elliott@latimes.com

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen


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