For former Flyers defenseman Luca Sbisa, it has been a long and winding 10-year journey that has taken him to the Stanley Cup Finals.
The trek started when he broke into the NHL with the Flyers at the age of 18, continued with stops in Anaheim and Vancouver, and now has him four wins away from being a Stanley Cup champion with the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.
The Knights, trying to finish writing one of the most remarkable stories in sports history, will host Washington in Game 1 on Monday.
This season has been a “crazy ride from day one,” Sbisa said in a phone interview from Las Vegas this week. “All the guys didn’t really know each other, but as time goes on, you jell as a team and it’s been an incredible ride. I definitely have to pinch myself” to show it’s not a dream.
Sbisa, one of Vegas’ alternate captains, said he and his teammates realized the Golden Knights were for real early in the season.
“Ten or 20 games in, we knew we had a good team, especially the way we handled adversity when our goalies went down,” he said. “We were down to our fifth goalie and we kept on winning. Everyone was saying that eventually, these guys are going to come back down to earth, and we never listened to that stuff. We just kept on going and kept piling up wins. And then when the playoffs started, it was the same thing. [People] saying, ‘The playoffs are a different game and they’re going to find out.’ But we never looked back and kept looking forward.”
Vegas, which won the Pacific Division title with a mind-boggling 109 points (51-24-7) and had the league’s fifth-best record in the regular season, has gone 12-3 in the playoffs and has outscored its opponents, 42-27.
“We need four more, and we’re playing for the best trophy in all sports,” Sbisa said.
Sbisa, who was born in Italy and grew up in Switzerland, was the Flyers’ first-round selection (19th overall) in the 2008 draft. He impressed the Flyers so much in training camp that year that he earned a spot in the NHL and played in 39 games.
“I was young and everything was new to me, and they gave me a chance to step into this league,” Sbisa said of his season with the Flyers. “The guys made me feel comfortable right away; they were good guys. I just remember Philly being a crazy hockey city where the fans are very passionate.”
After that season, Sbisa, Joffrey Lupul, and three draft picks, including two first-rounders, were sent to Anaheim in the deal that brought Chris Pronger to the Flyers.
Sbisa spent five seasons with the Ducks and three with Vancouver before Vegas selected him in last year’s expansion draft – a few days after his wife delivered their first child, Nolan, on June 16.
With Vancouver in 2016-17, Sbisa was one of two Canucks defensemen to have more than 100 blocks and more than 100 hits.
When healthy, Sbisa, 28, had a strong season in Vegas. The problem: He was out of the lineup on four occasions because of major injuries.
Sbisa played in just 30 regular-season games, collecting 14 points and a plus-8 rating.In the playoffs, he has two points, 20 blocked shots, and a plus-5 rating in seven games, and he set up Ryan Reaves’ decisive goal in the 2-1 victory over Winnipeg in Game 5, sending the Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Finals.
“I got a ton of texts, probably the most I’ve ever gotten,” he said about taking the point shot that Winnipeg native Reaves tipped into the net against the host Jets. “It was definitely a special moment.”
Reaves was in and out of the lineup as a healthy scratch after being acquired from Pittsburgh on Feb. 23, and Sbisa missed more than half the season because of injuries.
“We always told each other our time would come,” Sbisa said. “It’s great especially for him in his hometown, scoring his first goal as a Knight to clinch the series. It was just nice to be a part of it.”
Because of a hand injury, Sbisa missed the last six weeks of the regular season and the opening-round playoff sweep of Los Angeles.
He returned to the lineup in Game 5 of the conference semifinals against San Jose
“When you’re sitting there, watching all these games, it eats at your confidence a bit,” he said. “But I told myself, ‘You know what, you’re the same player you were before. You just took some weeks off.’ And the guys did a great job of keeping my conditioning up with specific drills. For me, it was just a matter of getting back to that comfort level pretty quickly and I think I found it right away.”
Sbisa has averaged 16 minutes, 38 seconds per game in the playoffs. He has earned the trust of coach Gerard Gallant and has been used late in games.
“That’s all you can ask for as a player,” Sbisa said.
Vegas is having the most successful first season, ever, in any of the big-four sports.
After the expansion draft last June, Vegas general manager George McPhee said he wanted to put together an “entertaining and competitive team, and our second objective was to acquire prospects and surplus draft picks. Time will tell if we met those objectives.”
Not only did the Golden Knights meet them, but they drew up a blueprint for all future expansion teams to follow.
Sbisa, who can become an unrestricted free agent in July, is proud to have played a role in the hard-to-fathom season, one the city has embraced.
“I’ve got to say, we have the best fans in the league,” Sbisa said. “From day one, our building has been the wildest, the loudest. They never let us down. At practice, we have a thousand-plus people watching us. It’s been crazy. Everywhere you go, you see people wearing Golden Knights shirts and hats. It’s definitely become a hockey town.”