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Vegas winning Stanley Cup would be more impressive than Miracle on Ice

(AP Photos)

The Miracle on Ice is probably the most iconic moment in American sports history.

The United States hockey team’s improbable gold medal at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York was named the top sports moment of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated, and the best international ice hockey story of the past 100 years by the International Ice Hockey Federation in 2008.

The problem with icon status is that it leaves the moment unassailable. Given the strained relations between the United States and the Soviet Union at the time, that gold medal fueled a surge in American pride. Nothing clouds judgement and critical analysis quite like a tidal wave of nationalism.

For proof, take a look at the NFL’s ongoing national anthem controversy.

With that as backdrop, here’s an assertion that is certain to set off a torrent of angry responses.

If the Vegas Golden Knights defeat the Washington Capitals to win the Stanley Cup in June, it will be a more impressive accomplishment than Team USA’s stunning win.

Here is why.

When the United States entered the 1980 Olympics, it was still regarded as one of the better hockey playing nations of the world; one that certainly had a chance to medal on its home turf. The IIHF was not holding a World Championship in Olympic years at the time, so the Americans came in ranked No. 7 in the world, dubiously placed just behind a West German team that went 1-4 in Lake Placid.

By contrast, the expansion Golden Knights entered the NHL picked by most analysts to finish dead last in the 31-team NHL standings.

Need proof?

Here are the USA Today preseason predictions. Here are the Sporting News predictions. Here are the NBC preseason picks. Here are the ESPN preseason picks. They all picked the Knights to finish dead last. And the list continues north of the border.

To put that in an Olympic context, Vegas was expected to perform something like a bottom feeder nation such as China, which was not among the 12 teams to qualify for the 1980 Olympics, but was invited with other non-qualifying nations to compete for something called the Thayer Tutt Trophy in Yugoslavia, at which it finished last.

There is nuance within that context. The disparity between the Soviet Union and China entering the 1980 Olympics was certainly greater than the disparity between the two-time Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins and the Golden Knights. The American youth succeeding against a Soviet team that was professional in all but name is also a point that has to be noted. The overriding point here, however, is that the odds for both were astronomically long.

Nobody expected the Golden Knights to win the Stanley Cup because nobody expected the Golden Knights to come close to making the playoffs, not even owner Bill Foley.

“We just need do well for a couple years, then make the playoffs in three years as we start transitioning in some of these younger guys,” Foley said in August. “We’ll be pretty good in three years and we’ll make a run in five or six.”

Here’s the other thing to remember. Team USA had to win four of five games in pool play (it tied Sweden, 2-2), then win two games in the medal round to take home gold. As anyone remotely familiar with sports will tell you, it’s much easier to beat a team once (as the American did with favored clubs such as the Soviets, Czechs and Finns) than it is to do it repeatedly.

Remember, the Soviets outshot the Americans 39-16. What do you think might have happened had the teams played a best-of-three series, or a best-of-seven, as they do in the NHL playoffs?

Vegas’ longevity makes its story all the more astonishing.

The Golden Knights won the Pacific Division with 109 points, the fifth-highest point total in the NHL. They engineered the most astonishing season in North American sports history over an 82-game grind, then knocked off the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and the Winnipeg Jets (114 points) to reach the Stanley Cup Final, where they will have home-ice advantage over the Capitals.

A Vegas Cup win would not reverberate on a national or global scale like Team USA’s Cold-War era win, but in terms of unlikely outcomes, such an accomplishment would top the Miracle on Ice.

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