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Expansion Knights rally a still-wounded city

May 21, 2018 GMT

The ability of sports to bind geographic kinfolk is fleeting, but it’s always strongest after tragic events and during championship runs.

When those conditions exist simultaneously, the result is epic.

On Oct. 1, 2017, a gunman on the 32nd floor of Mandalay Bay Resort Casino in Las Vegas opened fired, killing 58 concertgoers and wounding hundreds of others. In a matter of minutes, a city known most for fun was forever linked to one of the nation’s gravest mass shootings.

The Vegas Golden Knights played the home opener of their inaugural NHL season nine days later. A crowd of 18,191 jammed into T-Mobile Arena, where the official hockey capacity is 17,500.

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First responders escorted players onto the ice and there was a 58-second moment of silence to honor the lost. The Knights improved to 3-0 that night.

On Sunday, they advanced to the Stanley Cup Final. The team and its surprisingly hockey-crazed city are within four wins of the ultimate fairy-tale ending.

“It means a lot to us,” defenseman Deryk Engelland told reporters after Vegas clinched against Winnipeg in Game 5 of the Western Conference final. “This is what you play for all season. After Oct. 1, those first games, you want to play for the city, the people that were affected by it. To make this run, win this series and move on, it’s awesome for us, but it all comes back to the city and the people affected by (the shooting).”

This isn’t to suggest that the love affair between Las Vegas and its hockey team is based on the tragedy. That massacre isn’t the reason Vegas finished fourth in home attendance based on percentage.

General manager George McPhee, formerly of the Washington Capitals, completed his handiwork and built a terrific roster three months before the deranged killer struck.

Likewise, the league had no idea of future events when it created conditions for arguably sports’ most generous expansion draft ever. Vegas netted gems in the process, including three-time Stanley Cup-winning goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who merely has notched four shutouts this postseason.

“Best goalie in the league right now,” Winnipeg center Mark Scheifele told reporters after Fleury stopped 31 of 32 shots in Game 5 and 151 of 161 overall in the series. “He stood on his head. He made a lot of big saves.”

Fleury is one of four players Vegas poached from the Penguins.

Now an expansion team has him in line to win a third consecutive title.

Vegas’ rapid ascent to Pacific Division champion and Stanley Cup finalist has shocked the league and enchanted sports fans everywhere. It also has led to wisecracks from downtrodden hockey fans elsewhere, jealous about the nonexistent waiting period the Knights’ faithful endured.

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The Capitals’ 20-year absence pales in comparison to real droughts. Toronto hasn’t reached the championship round since 1967; St. Louis hasn’t played for the Cup since 1970.

But other outposts have options Vegas never enjoyed.

“We don’t care about ‘long-suffering’ cities that haven’t won anything in decades and now have to watch an expansion team reach the finals,” @LasVegasLocally tweeted Sunday. “Vegas is a 113-year-old city that wasn’t allowed to have a pro sports team FOR THE FIRST 112 YEARS.”

Las Vegas also enjoyed a virtual monopoly on legal sports betting domestically until last week.

The Supreme Court decision that overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 isn’t an unspeakable horror like Stephen Paddock’s atrocity. But it’s still a blow to the city. The Knights’ success will help that recovery effort as well:

Hockey has been good, too, for Nevada bookmakers even though the oddsmakers stand to take a beating if the preseason 500-to-1 longshot Golden Knights win the cup. No matter, the house almost certainly will recoup that money through other wagers.

“There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that about 40 percent of the people betting on hockey now never bet it before the Golden Knights came,” oddsmaker Jimmy Vacarro told ESPN.

The real winners here are the thousands of Vegas residents hooked during this improbable ride.

What began at a heartrending time has become a heartwarming trip.

″[The shooting] was a big moment obviously in the city,” Fleury told reporters. “I think as a team, we couldn’t heal anybody. But if we could just change their mind a bit throughout those first few weeks and throughout the season, getting them to be proud of the team, cheering for something, we were able to provide a little bit of that for Vegas.”

Yes, they did.

In a way that only sports can.

Brooklyn-born and Howard-educated Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.