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Golden Knights' run to Stanley Cup ranks among all-time underdog tales

It doesn’t rival the “Miracle on Ice.”

Or does it?

It can’t match the ridiculously improbable run of the Leicester City Foxes when they rose to the top of the English Premier League in 2015-16, as 5,000-to-1 long shots.

Or can it?

The Vegas Golden Knights keep sending us to our memory banks and Google searches to try to put into perspective what they’re pulling off as the NHL postseason glides into late May.

“Miracle on Ice.” Leceister. Joe Namath and the ’68 Jets. Texas Western’s 1966 NCAA basketball title. Eleventh-seed George Mason reaching the 2006 Final Four.

There are dozens of great underdog stories in team sports, and the Knights reaching the Stanley Cup Final has to top nearly all of them.

When Vegas beat the Winnipeg Jets 2-1 on Sunday to take the Western Conference final in five games, the Knights became the first NHL expansion franchise since St. Louis in 1967-68 to ensure it would play for the championship.

(The Blues, by the way, were competing in a 12-team league that had just expanded from six and guaranteed an expansion team a spot in the finals. Comical, and no comparison.)

No true first-year team has won the championship in any of America’s four major sports.

The NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks took three years to win a title. Baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks needed four. The Cleveland Browns won in their first NFL season in 1950, but they existed for several seasons before joining the league.

What’s the average time for an NHL expansion team to reach the Stanley Cup? 11.9 years.

Incredibly, four teams in the league have never been there; seven haven’t been in this century.

The winners of three playoff series — the longest of which went six games — the Knights no doubt have a tough, potential seven-game series ahead. They’ll play either Washington or Tampa Bay, who meet in Game 6 on Monday, with the Lightning owning a 3-2 series lead.

Vegas is 2-0 against each of those teams this season. The Knights just dominated and won twice at Winnipeg, the team with the second-best record, which ousted the team with the best record, Nashville, in the Western Conference semis.

It now seems almost unthinkable the Knights wouldn’t have enough confidence and karma to end up parading the Cup down Las Vegas Blvd.

For decades — in America, at least — U.S. hockey’s triumph over the Russians in the 1980 Olympics has been considered the greatest upset in sports history. The Americans were a rag-tag group of mostly college players seemingly overmatched against the big, bad, professional Russians.

Tremendous. The timing for overflowing red, white and blue pride was ideal, coming amid the West-East tensions of the Cold War.

But let’s also remember that the entire Olympic tournament for the U.S. was eight games (in which the Americans went 6-0-2).

When the Knights began their season, they faced a daunting 82 games with an entire squad of castoffs who had gone unprotected by their previous teams for the expansion draft (or were traded).

“The Golden Misfits,” they called themselves.

If your underbelly is soft, you can’t hide that for a six grueling months. And yet the buildup seemed far too short for the Knights to become a cohesive unit.

Six-year-olds make fast friends, not 30-year-olds with chips the size of hockey pucks on their shoulders.

The Knights get an “A” for their group sculpture on the ice.

Asked on Sunday after the Winnipeg triumph if he could have ever imagined reaching the Stanley Cup Final, Vegas defenseman Nate Schmidt smiled and offered one honest word: “No.”

To say no one believed is not an overstatement. Before the season, NHL.com asked 17 of its writers — all presumed experts on the game — to pick the top three teams from each division. The Knights didn’t get a single mention.

The Sporting News picked them last in the Pacific Division, with a mere 47 points. They won 51 games and finished with more than double that — 109.

No wonder the Las Vegas oddsmakers were willing to stick their necks out with 300-1 odds on the Knights a year ago. When they didn’t get enough action, they upped it to 500-1.

Dumb play, and those guys don’t do dumb very often.

Anybody whose lost 100 bucks at a blackjack table in 10 minutes might chuckle, but some of the books are now on the hook for six- and seven-figure losses.

The underdog exposure is almost unprecedented for a championship team, though it could have been worse for Las Vegas if, say, Leicester played in Los Angeles.

The Foxes are the anti-Knights in some way. They existed for 132 years and had never claimed a major league title until their jaw-dropping run two years ago.

Given the enormous financial gap between the haves and have-nots in soccer, Leicester’s fairytale probably tops VGK, but there’s really no reason to rank them when the joy it brings to so many remains the same.

On Sunday’s game-winning goal, Vegas’ Ryan Reaves got a fraction of his stick on a shot to redirect the puck over the right shoulder of Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck. But that wasn’t enough. The puck caromed off the crossbar and Hellebuyck’s back.

Golden luck, these Knights have.

In one great chapter after another, Reaves is the latest hero. He was a Winnipeg native playing in front of friends who proudly wore their Jets jackets and sweaters. The designated bruiser hadn’t scored as a Knight since coming from Pittsburgh in a February trade.

This is Knights hockey. Crazy. Thrilling. Improbable. A miracle in its own right.

tod.leonard@sduniontribune.com; Twitter: @sdutleonard

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