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Dan Bouchard can appreciate
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, better than most, the Miracle in the Desert.
He was a goalie for the expansion Atlanta Flames back in the 1970s, so he knows how difficult it is to build a competitive team from scratch.
”It’s astonishing what they’ve done in Vegas,” said Bouchard, who still lives in the Atlanta area, when reached by phone this week. ”I think it’s the greatest thing to happen to hockey since the Miracle on Ice,” he added, referring to the seminal U.S. upset of the mighty Soviet Union at the 1980 Olympics. ”It’s that good.”
Indeed, Vegas has set a new norm for expansion teams in all sports. No longer will it be acceptable to enter a league with a squad full of dregs and take your lumps for a few years, all while fans willingly pay big-league prices to watch an inferior product.
The Golden Knights have come up with a stunning new template for how this expansion thing can be done.
They romped to the Pacific Division title with 51 wins. In the opening round of the playoffs, they finished off the Los Angeles Kings in four straight games , casting aside a franchise that has a pair of Stanley Cup titles this decade while becoming the first expansion team in NHL history to sweep a postseason series in its debut year.
Imagine how storied franchises in Montreal and Detroit and Edmonton must be feeling right about now.
They didn’t even make the playoffs.
From Bouchard’s perspective
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, it’s all good. Vegas’ success right out of the starting gate will make everyone raise their game in the years to come.
”This will wake up the teams that are sitting on $90 million budgets and not doing anything,” he said. ”People will say, `If Vegas can do it, we can do it.’ That’s a paradigm shift in the game.”
When one considers how NHL expansion teams have fared over the years, the Vegas story becomes even more compelling.
The Golden Knights are the first new team in the NHL’s modern era to have a winning record in their inaugural season, a period that began in 1967 and encompasses 26 new franchises (including one, the ill-fated California Seals, who are no longer around).
Only six other first-year teams have made the playoffs – and that includes four that were assured of postseason berths in the landmark 1967 expansion. You see, when the NHL finally broke out of its Original Six format, doubling in size to a dozen teams, it placed all the new franchises in the same division, with the top four getting postseason berths even with sub-.500 records.
Until the Golden Knights came along
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, the Florida Panthers were the gold standard for NHL expansion. They finished one game below .500 in their first season (1993-94) and missed the playoffs by a single point. In Year 3, they had their first winning record and made it all the way to the Stanley Cup final, though they were swept by the Colorado Avalanche.
That remains the closest the Panthers have come to winning a title.
In Sin City, the wait for a championship figures to be much shorter. Heck, the Golden Knights might do it this year.
They’re 12 wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup in a city that has always had a soft spot for long shots.
”We’re still a few wins away from this being a great story,” said goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, a key contributor to the Golden Knights success.
Even now, it seems like a bit of dream to coach Gerard Gallant, who thankfully will be remembered for something other than getting left at the curb to hail his own cab after being fired by the Panthers.
”When this all started in October, we just wanted to compete,” Gallant said. ”Now we’re going to the second round of the playoffs. It’s unreal.”
For sure, the Golden Knights wound up with a much more talented roster than most expansion teams – partly through astute planning
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, partly through getting access to better players as a reward for doling out a staggering $500 million expansion fee, which was a more than six-fold increase over the $80 million required of Minnesota and Columbus to enter the league in 2000.
The expansion draft netted a top-line goalie in Fleury, who helped Pittsburgh win three Stanley Cups; center Jonathan Marchessault, a 30-goal scorer in Florida who was surprisingly left exposed by the Panthers; and winger James Neal, who had scored more than 20 goals in all nine of his NHL seasons. It also provided a solid group of defensemen: Colin Miller, Nate Schmidt, Deryk Engelland and Brayden McNabb.
In addition, the Golden Knights wisely nabbed young Swedish center William Karlsson, who hadn’t done much in Columbus but became Vegas’ leading scorer with 43 goals and 35 assists.
”They’ve got some top centers. They’ve got some real good defense. They’ve got good goaltending,” Bouchard observed. ”They went right down the middle. That’s how the built it. Then they complemented it with the fastest guys they could get their hands on. They went for speed.”
Previous expansion teams didn’t have it nearly as good.
Bouchard actually played on one of the better first-year teams when the Flames entered the league in 1972. They were in playoff contention much of the season and finished with more points than four other teams in the 16-team league, including the storied Toronto Maple Leafs.
But that was a team that had to struggle for every win. The Flames had only three 20-goal scorers and were largely carried by their two young goalies, Bouchard and Phil Myre.
”We didn’t have a bona fide 30-goal scorer
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,” Bouchard recalled.
HOUSTON — The Houston Astros salvaged a split of their six-game road trip with a victory at Texas on Wednesday, setting the stage for what could be the most critical stretch of their schedule.
Houston returns to Minute Maid Park on Thursday to host the opener of a four-game series with the Chicago White Sox and an 11-game homestand that will carry the Astros (57-31) into the All-Star break.
Following their team record-tying 12-game winning streak last month, the Astros have gone a pedestrian 8-6. They have been unable to shake the Seattle Mariners (55-32) in the chase for the American League West pennant and remain behind the Boston Red Sox (59-29) and New York Yankees (56-28) in pursuit of the best record in the majors.
The Astros could gain significant ground in the standings with a dominating homestand facing two teams below .500, the White Sox and Detroit Tigers (38-50), sandwiched around a four-game series against the Oakland Athletics, against whom Houston is 8-1 this season.
Houston rallied from a four-run deficit to complete the sweep of its two-game set with the Rangers with a 5-4 win. The bullpen was vital, with right-handers Will Harris, Collin McHugh and Ken Giles combining for five innings of scoreless relief, allowing three hits and zero walks.
“I think our bullpen did exactly what we needed,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said.
The Astros have performed inconsistently since their winning streak, with injuries (shortstop Carlos Correa) and slumps (outfielder George Springer and super utility Marwin Gonzalez) yielding uneven play. Rectifying matters at home against inferior competition might cure ills.
Right-hander Justin Verlander (9-4, 2.12 ERA) will open the homestand for the Astros. Verlander has suffered consecutive losses
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, allowing nine runs on 16 hits and three walks with 14 strikeouts over 11 2/3 innings against the Toronto Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Rays during the final week of June.
Verlander has surrendered at least three runs in four of five starts after doing so only once over his first 13 starts. He is 21-13 with a 3.74 ERA over 43 career starts against Chicago.
The White Sox will counter with left-hander Carlos Rodon (1-3, 4.55 ERA), who will make his sixth start of the season. Rodon made his season debut on June 9 at Boston and allowed a season-high five runs in his last outing, surrendering six hits and two walks over 5 1/3 innings in a 13-4 loss at Texas.
Rodon is 1-0 with a 1.71 ERA over four career starts against the Astros.
With their 7-4 loss in Cincinnati to the Cincinnati Reds on Wednesday, the White Sox (30-56) will conclude their stretch of 13 games in 13 days with the four-game series against the Astros. Chicago entered the series finale at Cincinnati with its starters providing the fewest innings in the AL; right-handed starter Dylan Covey continued that trend by working only 3 2/3 innings.
Combine that strenuous bullpen workload with the lack of off-days, and the White Sox will look to Rodon to not only provide a quality start on Thursday but a lengthy one as well.
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