Into the conference semis, the Knights are playing with house money

The Golden Knights are 12 wins away from an unprecedented feat in winning the Stanley Cup in their inaugural season. AP Photo/Chris Carlson

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Pierre-Edouard Bellemare's first trip to Las Vegas was a colossal bust. In 2013, the French-born winger's Skellefteå AIK won the Swedish Hockey League championship, and the team splurged with a weeklong trip to Vegas. Upon arriving at the airport, Belle-mare was told that his passport -- which didn't have a necessary biometric chip -- was no good. So instead, he spent the week holed up at his mother's house in France. Naturally, it rained every day.

His teammates showed little mercy, texting him panoramic photos of their helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon and Snapchatting selfies from backstage at an Avicii show. Bellemare sulked -- and renewed his passport, with an expiration of 2023. That's good, his mother, Frederique, told him, because it means one day you can live in the United States -- and live there for a while.

"I didn't say shut up," Bellemare says now. "But I was thinking, 'This is bulls---.'" After all, the NHL was little more than a pipe dream for the 28-year-old -- even his own coaches on the French national team told him to give up on the idea. "You'll see," Frederique said at the time. "One day we will be laughing about this."

A year later, Bellemare helped lead Skellefteå to a second straight title and signed as a free agent with the Flyers. Now the left winger is an alternate captain for the Golden Knights in their wildly successful inaugural season. "So now I'm not just traveling to Vegas, I own a house in Vegas," he says. "I have a wife and child here. I sometimes have to think, 'How did my career end up like this?'"

Nearly every teammate can relate. Center William Karlsson was discarded by two teams in his first three seasons. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was dumped by the Penguins, for whom he won 375 games (and three Stanley Cups) over 13 seasons. A tad short for scouts' liking, 5-foot-9 center Jonathan Marchessault toiled with two clubs before breaking out with 30 goals for the Panthers last season. Defenseman Nate Schmidt spent a chunk of last season sitting in the press box as the Capitals' seventh defenseman.

"The whole roster is full of guys whose teams said 'We don't want you' or 'We want other players more,'" says enforcer Ryan Reaves, who joined the Knights at the deadline from Pittsburgh. "It's a bunch of guys who are hungry. And they all can play."

WHEN THE GOLDEN KNIGHTS opened the season at 200-1 odds to win the Stanley Cup (the longest in the NHL), few people blinked. After all, of the 64 expansion teams in the four major U.S. sports leagues since 1960, none had debuted with a winning season -- until now.

Not only did the Knights finish with a .655 point percentage, they placed first in the Pacific Division and cruised into the second round of the playoffs -- the first NHL team to make the postseason in its inaugural season since the Oilers and Whalers merged from the WHA in 1979-80, when just five of the league's 21 teams didn't make the playoffs.

Cynics will point out that Vegas enjoyed a more generous expansion format than the NHL has ever granted before, as teams could protect fewer players than in the past. That's true, but the Knights also gamed the system: Vegas GM George McPhee orchestrated 10 official trades ahead of the draft, collecting 10 picks and six additional players on top of his 30 draftees.

"A lot of teams got in their own heads," a Western Conference GM says. "In reality, you just need to suck it up and lose one player. But a lot of teams wanted to protect certain assets and got fancy making side deals, and it kind of nipped them in the butt."

The Knights quickly differentiated themselves with their balance; they regularly roll out four lines, with no regard for matchups. Consider: Karlsson led Vegas forwards in time on ice (18:43 per game) in the regular season, but that ranked just 55th among forwards across the NHL. Reilly Smith was the shift leader at 22.2 per game, ranking just 120th leaguewide.

"Well, we really didn't have a choice," McPhee says. "We don't have the elite players that other teams have. We thought that perhaps if our third and fourth lines were better than other clubs' third and fourth lines, that could be a way to even things out."

The Knights' swarming forecheck can pin opponents for long stretches. They have a wealth of capable defenders after taking 13 in the expansion draft; none profiles as a traditional No. 1, but none is overtaxed either. Then there's Fleury, a stud goalie who posted career bests in save percentage (.927) and GAA (2.24) in his age-33 season.

Coach Gerard Gallant is a fitting leader for this ragtag bunch. He became somewhat of a meme last season when he was fired by the Panthers at a road game. Cameras captured him outside Raleigh's PNC Arena waiting for a taxi. Since moving to Vegas, Gallant has downloaded Uber but maintained his simplicity. His go-to postgame meal is a bologna sandwich. His practices aren't overly technical. "The system he has is very basic," Reaves says. "He trusts everybody to make their reads. He doesn't focus as much on what the opponents are doing but wants guys to play their game."

That has allowed the Knights to play freely, which in turn has led to career seasons from several players. There's no better example than Karlsson, who came to Vegas largely anonymous. Wild Bill finally lived up to his nickname, scoring 43 goals while chasing Alex Ovechkin for the league title. In March, Karlsson made his return to Columbus, the team that left him exposed in the expansion draft. Marchessault asked if there would be a tribute video.

"Probably not," Karlsson said. "I scored six goals all of last year."

WHEN BELLEMARE FIRST planned a trip to Vegas five years ago, he couldn't have imagined his life now. He and almost all of the players bought or rented homes in Summerlin, a community on the edge of Red Rock Canyon that is dotted by cul-de-sacs, with a Whole Foods and an Apple store. "We can go to the Strip whenever we want," Bellemare says. "But our whole life out here, it's separate from what you think of when you think of Vegas."

It is also clearly different from what most road teams expect from Sin City: The league's methods for preparing for the "Vegas Flu" have become legendary. The Flames organized their first moms trip when they visited on Feb. 21. The Ducks called an audible in February and flew into town just hours before puck drop. The Maple Leafs stayed nearly 30 minutes away by Red Rock Canyon -- and all three teams lost anyway.

Of course, Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella actually encouraged his players to go out so they would "play guilty," and they lost 6-3. All of this mostly serves to amuse the Golden Knights, who, by the way, also have a winning record away from home. "You hear of teams doing this and that," Schmidt says. "Sure, stay off the Strip, but you're just adding time to your Uber trip."

But flu or no flu, the Knights are acutely aware of the skepticism that comes from being the first major league sports team in Las Vegas. Well before the season, team ownership doubled down on securing a fan base. In August, two months before puck drop, the Knights rented a 45-foot bus, slathered it with black decals and their team logo, and drove more than 1,000 miles from the city. On a four-day tour, they hosted open skates and meet and greets in towns like Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, and Whitefish, Montana -- not exactly hockey hotbeds but territory the Knights claimed in their TV distribution rights. "There's no professional sports team that attacks that marketplace, that's involved in that marketplace," owner Bill Foley says. "So we can be their team."

The team's bond with the city itself was tested early when, a week before the home opener, a gunman opened fire on a country music festival at Mandalay Bay on the Strip, killing 58 and wounding nearly 500. Defenseman Deryk Engelland, who has made Las Vegas his offseason home since playing for the local minor league team in 2003, delivered groceries to the local firehouse. Some players visited the hospital, while others showed up at blood drives. At the opener, the team brought 26 first responders to the ice and in an emotional pregame ceremony gave Engelland the mic. "We'll do everything we can to help you and our city heal," he pronounced. "We are Vegas Strong."

The team opened its hearts to the city's healing, and in turn, fans have embraced the team. When the Knights hosted a fan festival on Jan. 14, more than 10,000 people showed up. The team has sold tickets at 103.7 percent of capacity, fourth best in the NHL.

In typical Vegas fashion, the team has made games a destination. "It's like you're in a nightclub," explained the Capitals' Ovechkin at this season's All-Star Game. "It's like a party. Everybody dancing. It's like, 'Holy Jesus, are we in a hockey game or is this like a pool party out there?'" There's an elaborate pregame ceremony -- part rip-off of a Medieval Times skit -- and a glow-in-the-dark drum line perched in the 200 level. The loudest cheers, however, come from moments of catharsis. At every home game, the team has honored someone who was at Mandalay Bay that night -- both the visiting and home benches give emphatic stick taps for victims and first responders. In March, the team retired the No. 58, hanging a banner from the rafters. And after the season they just had, it doesn't feel like such a long shot that the Knights will soon have a chance to raise another banner.

If it happens, Bellemare knows where he wants to celebrate with his teammates.

"Vegas," he says with a smile.