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NHL: Once kicked to curb, Golden Knights coach heads to Cup final

WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Just 17 months ago, Gerard Gallant was abruptly fired by the Florida Panthers and left at the curb following a road game to hail his own taxi as the team bus drove away.

On Sunday, the 54-year-old Canadian was packing his bags for the National Hockey League’s (NHL) Stanley Cup finals as head coach of the Vegas Golden Knights and part of the unlikeliest story in sports.

Gallant was still all business in Winnipeg on Sunday night after Vegas had beaten the Jets 2-1 to ice the series 4-1 and ensure they would be the first expansion team to play in the NHL final in 50 years.

“It’s been an awesome ride so far. But again, this isn’t what we want,” Gallant said.

“We’re far from satisfied.”

The Knights, who will play the Washington Capitals or Tampa Bay Lightning for the NHL title, have been dubbed misfits after being rejected by their former clubs, and the description applies equally to former goal-scoring forward Gallant.

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“Each guy was given a new chance and opportunity here,” said Knights veteran forward James Neal.

“(Gallant) gave you that opportunity and let you work with it. He’s just positive, the perfect coach for our group.”

For Vegas fans, the team’s success resonates deeply.

The Knights, Nevada’s only pro team in any of the four major North American leagues, was quick to reach out to victims and first responders after a mass shooting in Las Vegas last fall just as hockey season started.

“It has a lot of meaning,” said Knights fan and Vegas resident Lynn Romano, who returned to the city she grew up in for Game Five with her daughter Mikayla, 10.

“The community came together with hockey. There’s a big connection.”

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The Knights dominated early, forcing an errant pass by Jets defender Josh Morrissey that ended in a Vegas goal by winger Alex Tuch.

Morrissey tied it late in the first period with a rocket shot that beat Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury high.

Vegas notched the winner in the second, when Winnipeg-raised winger Ryan Reaves tipped a shot over Jet goaltender Connor Hellebuyck’s shoulder.

The loss was crushing for Winnipeg’s rabid fans, especially as the Jets had earlier eliminated the NHL’s best regular season team, the Nashville Predators.

Fans had dressed in white costumes ranging from Elvis to fast-food icon Colonel Sanders at parties dubbed Whiteouts, which will now fade to black with the club’s elimination.

“There’s actually a very small part of me that is sad for Winnipeg,” said Romano.

Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Manitoba, editing by Nick Mulvenney