This isn’t supposed to happen. Expansion teams aren’t supposed to reach a championship series in their first season of existence.
And yet here the Vegas Golden Knights are, four wins away from lifting the Stanley Cup to complete a Cinderella story that no one could have seen coming.
Vegas secured their spot on the big stage by disposing of the Winnipeg Jets 2-1 in Game 5 on Sunday to win the Western Conference finals 4-1.
They’re just the second expansion team across America’s four major sports leagues – NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL – to reach a championship series in their first season, joining the 1967-68 St. Louis Blues, who also made the Stanley Cup Finals.
WESTERN— Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) May 20, 2018
It’s not like the Golden Knights have come out of nowhere in the playoffs as they finished the regular season with the fifth-most points in the league at 109.
But after overcoming the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks in the first two rounds, they ran into a Winnipeg team that had the second-best record in the NHL and hadn’t lost more than three straight games all season.
Following a defeat in Game 1, the Golden Knights beat Winnipeg four times in a row for a gentleman’s sweep.
“It’s insane,” said defenseman Deryk Engelland. “Your goal is always to make the playoffs. But if I were to guess I would be sitting here doing this right now, you would be a little skeptical at the time.”
Now, Vegas have the chance to make even more history and cap off an improbable run for the ages.
Whether or not they capture the Cup though, the Golden Knights already have a strong case as the greatest expansion team.
For an idea of how unusual their immediate success has been, here’s how Vegas compare to other expansion franchises that were impactful in their early years, beginning with that aforementioned Blues team.
1967-68 St. Louis Blues
Ahead of the 1967-68 season, St. Louis were one of six new teams added to the NHL, which doubled in size from its Original Six franchises.
The playoffs included eight teams, which is how the Blues were able to reach the postseason despite finishing with a losing record at 27-31-16, good for third in the West Division.
They beat the Philadelphia Flyers and the Minnesota North Stars in seven games through the first two rounds before being swept by the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Finals.
An impressive inaugural season for sure, but the size of the league at the time isn’t comparable to the 31 teams in the NHL at the moment.
1995-96 Florida Panthers
Aside from Vegas and St. Louis, the Florida Panthers are the only other NHL franchise to reach the same heights in their first three seasons.
The Panthers formed in 1993 but failed to reach the playoffs in their first two years, compiling a 53-56 combined record. In 1995-96 though, they broke through by going 41-31 in the regular season and beating the Boston Bruins, the Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins to reach the Stanley Cup Finals, where they lost to the Colorado Avalanche in four games.
Since then, Florida have never come close to duplicating that success as they’ve reached the playoffs just four times and failed to get past the conference quarter-finals.
1995 Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers
But in their second year, the Panthers went 12-4 and beat the Dallas Cowboys to reach the NFC Championship Game, while the Jaguars built on a 9-7 regular season with a spot in the AFC Championship Game.
Though neither made the Super Bowl that year, their ability to contend so soon after forming was astonishing nonetheless.
1998 Arizona Diamondbacks
Their first season, in which they went 65-97, was one to forget, but the Arizona Diamondbacks bounced back in a major way in 1999 with a 100-62 record to become the first MLB expansion team to reach the playoffs in its first two years.
Starting pitcher Randy Johnson was a force on the mound and earned the NL Cy Young Award while leading them to the National League Division Series, where the New York Mets would beat them 3-1.
Two years later, the Diamondbacks would reach the summit and win a World Series.
We’re now more than a quarter of the way through the Major League Baseball season and though a lot of baseball still remains (and we mean a lot), the first couple months have been a fun ride.
If you haven’t been able to keep up with everything that has been going on – we don’t blame you – here’s a refresher on some of the biggest storylines in the season so far.
From huge winning streaks to insane stats, there’s been no shortage of intrigue.
Which teams have been the best?
Let’s start with defending champions. The Houston Astros (29-18) are currently behind the Boston Red Sox (32-15) and New York Yankees (29-13) in terms of win percentage, but they’ve still been a dominant side, posting the best run differential in baseball at plus-96. That’s been due to their stellar pitching, which has allowed a league-low 122 runs and owns a league-best 2.46 earned run average. Last year it was their bats that powered their run, but they’ve become a much more balanced side since winning the World Series.
In the American League East, the Red Sox and Yankees are in a battle at the top of the division after both went on early-season tears. Boston won 17 of their first 19 games to take the lead, but New York had a run of their own with 17 victories in 18 contests to surge back. The rivals rank one and two in the league, in some order, in runs, slugging percentage and OPS (on-base plus slugging). With how well each team is doing, it’s possible there may be a 100-win side fighting for their life in the AL Wild Card Game.
Which stars have shined the brightest?
Speaking of the Red Sox, Mookie Betts has arguably been the best player in baseball this season. The 25-year-old leads the league in batting average (.365), on-base percentage (.438), slugging (.760), OPS (1.198), home runs (15), runs (48) and doubles (19), while being sure-handed in right field.
It’s only arguable that Betts has been the best player because Mike Trout has a strong case himself. The Los Angeles Angels star doesn’t have the same batting stats as Betts, but his WAR (wins above replacement) is higher (3.9 to 3.6) thanks to his superb defence and all-around game. In fact, Trout is on pace to have the greatest season in MLB history based on WAR, as detailed here.
Other standouts so far have been Astros starter Justin Verlander, who is 5-2 with a 1.05 ERA; Washington Nationals starter Max Scherzer, who is 7-1 with a 1.78 ERA; Baltimore Orioles shortstop Manny Machado, who is hitting .343 with 14 home runs and 42 runs batted in; and Red Sox outfielder J.D. Martinez, who is hitting .343 with 15 home runs and 14 RBIs.
What have been some of the biggest surprises?
He could have easily been mentioned in the last section, but Angels two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani has surprised from this standpoint: he’s completely lived up to the hype, and then some. The Japanese slugger and flamethrower is hitting .321 with six home runs and 17 RBIs, while going 3-1 on the mound with a 3.58 ERA and 43 strikeouts in 32 2/3 innings.
The Atlanta Braves have also been a surprise – specifically their offence. After ranking 21st in runs scored last season, the Braves are currently third thanks to a mix of youth and experience, as players like Ozzie Albies, Nick Markakis and Freddie Freeman have been forces at the plate.
The Pittsburgh Pirates’ offence has also exceeded expectations as they’re on pace to win more than 78 games for the first time since in three years. The loss of franchise cornerstone Andrew McCutchen has been mitigated by Corey Dickerson, Starling Marte, Francisco Cervelli and others.
The rivals will play on June 29 and 30, 2019, with the estimated capacity of London Stadium for the series at 55,000.
With a two-year deal agreed upon, MLB will host an additional series in London in 2020, with those teams to be announced later.
Speaking at the announcement, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said: “Major League Baseball is excited to be bringing one of the most storied rivalries in sports to the passionate fans of London.
“In our ongoing efforts to grow baseball, there is nothing as impactful as bringing live games and our talented players to fans. This is our most significant endeavor ever in Europe and we look forward to showcasing Major League Baseball in one of the world’s great cities.”
Old rivalry. New ground. MLB presents the #LondonSeries: Boston @RedSox vs. New York @Yankees at London Stadium on June 29th & 30th 2019. Register now for pre-sale ticket access at https://t.co/xRy7IjGkfu pic.twitter.com/P0ausGpMV9— MLB (@MLB) May 8, 2018
Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said: “I am absolutely delighted that we have secured this historic agreement for Major League Baseball to come to London in 2019 and 2020. All the hard work has paid off.
“There is no better way to start the London Series and the first Major League Baseball fixture in Europe than a clash between two heavyweights of international sport – the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox.
“This is a major coup demonstrating, once again, that London is the sporting capital of the world and I am excited about a new partnership with MLB and the long term future of this sport in our great city.”