Vegas Golden Knights may have stumbled in Stanley Cup finals, but best is yet to come

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David Perron and the Golden Knights thrilled the NHL with their storybook season, but fell short of the Stanley Cup. (AP Photo/John Locher)

LAS VEGAS — This was supposed to happen a long time ago, back in November or January or even May, when it seemed like the Vegas Golden Knights had distorted reality long enough and were ready to be called back down to Earth.

But the Golden Knights kept stiff arming logic and reason, from the start of their inaugural season to Thursday night, when the NHL’s miracle expansion team fell just a few miracles short. The Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup on the Golden Knights’ home ice inside T-Mobile Arena, beating them 4-3 and 4-1 in the series, leaving them watching from their bench, slumped still by sadness, as the Capitals chucked their gear into the air before mobbing each other in euphoric celebration.

“I’m still a little emotional, can’t really talk right now,” Golden Knights forward Alex Tuch said, his eyes filled with tears, his lower lip quivering, when asked to reflect on the season. “It’s tough. We played for each other all year long, and we came up short.”

Now the Golden Knights must turn to what’s next. They have to think about contracts and free agency and who will fill out their lineup when the puck drops again in four months. And they have to think about reality, because not every season brims with so much success, and not every spring ends with a Stanley Cup run.

Few do, really. Las Vegas, a blossoming sports town, will soon learn that the hard way. But the Golden Knights, pieced together in an expansion draft last summer, are built to last. They have a core of talented forwards, a handful of speedy young defenseman and Marc-Andre Fleury, one of the best goaltenders in the NHL, signed through next season.

James Neal is the only priority unrestricted free agent for the Golden Knights, making it very likely he is back on their second line next year. Center William Karlsson (who led the Golden Knights with 78 points in the regular season) is a restricted free agent, as are defensemen Shea Theodore and Colin Miller, as well as forwards Tomas Nosek and William Carrier. They have three picks in the upcoming NHL draft, in the second, fifth and sixth rounds, giving them a chance to bargain hunt and strengthen their farm system.

As of now, without factoring in the cap hit for any of the restricted or unrestricted free agents they could could sign, the Golden Knights are projected to have just over $30 million to utilize this summer. It is rare for an expansion team to make a big spending splash after one season. It is also rare for an expansion team to be this good, this fast.

“One of the most exciting, underrated parts of the whole Vegas and Golden Knights story is that the team is ready to be very good beyond this season,” NBC Sports analyst Pierre McGuire said. “Of course the city was drawn to the immediate success, and this year will always be very special for obvious reasons, but they should continue to be very competitive into the future.”

There was a measured energy inside the Golden Knights’ practice facility Thursday morning, with the season slipping away and only a handful of players participating in an optional skate. But the scattered crowd was still dotted by square white signs, each spelling out a different element of the Golden Knights’ short, stuffed history.

One sign read “HEALING” in thin black letters, a reminder of how the Golden Knights helped Vegas cope after a gunman killed 58 people at a country music concert on Oct. 1. The Golden Knights’ home opener was nine days later, just a few blocks from the attack, and they honored the victims and their families and the first responders on the ice. Ask anyone in Vegas about the Golden Knights, in an Uber or at a bar or while walking down The Strip, and the team’s response to the shooting comes up every time. The tragedy and this season are forever linked.

Another sign read “I BELIEVE IN US,” a reminder of how few people did when Vegas was given a hockey team in June of 2016. The Westgate Las Vegas Superbook opened the Golden Knights’ odds to win the Stanley Cup at 500-to-1. That was about the industry standard. Then the Golden Knights tore through the regular season, won the Pacific Division, swept the Los Angeles Kings, edged the San Jose Sharks, won four straight to beat the Winnipeg Jets but finally ran into the Capitals at the finish line.

The biggest sign read “REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE,” a reminder that there is hockey to be played beyond this series and season. The Golden Knights are not just traveling through this transient town. They are not here for a three-night stay, ready to wash Las Vegas from their consciousness by Monday morning. They are this city’s hockey team, in the midst of a desert, through any improbable victory and distressing defeat, and into a promising future.

“We got a lot of great pieces here,” Golden Knights defenseman Deryk Engelland said Thursday night after the loss. “It starts with our goaltending out. We got some young guys that are making a lot of strides this year, and some older guys who still have a lot left in the tank. So there’s a lot of upside. I think guys are going to remember today, that’s for sure.”