This year’s Stanley Cup finals feature two franchises seeking their first championship: one team no one thought would win anything significant this season, and another with many doubters of its own.
The Vegas Golden Knights, who a year ago did not have a roster, reached the finals in their inaugural season. The Washington Capitals have spent more than four decades on a roller-coaster ride — complete with plenty of nausea — that has yet to deliver them the Cup. Their only other finals appearance was 20 years ago, when they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings.
While Vegas was expected to be better than other recent expansion teams, many still picked the Golden Knights to finish last in the Pacific Division, behind wayward franchises like Arizona and Vancouver. Vegas won the division handily and now enjoys home-ice advantage in the finals.
Washington was also overlooked by most people this season, after years of disappointing playoff finishes during the Alex Ovechkin era. Last season’s team was considered the Capitals’ most talented one, but after winning the Presidents’ Trophy with the league’s best record by a wide margin, it lost in the second round of the N.H.L. playoffs. The Capitals lost key players in free agency and left their coach, Barry Trotz, with a lame-duck contract.
These teams took different routes to the same place, but they can trace their roots to the same man: George McPhee. The Golden Knights and the Capitals’ shared history is just one story line to consider when the Cup finals begin Monday night in Las Vegas.
Vegas (51-24-7, 109 points) made a habit out of prevailing over tough opponents. The Golden Knights compiled the best record of any team this postseason with 12 victories in 15 games. (Game 1 on Monday will be their first game in eight days.) They swept an experienced Los Angeles Kings team in the first round, allowing only three goals in the series. They bounced a formidable San Jose squad from the second round in six games. In the conference finals, they started the series with a loss at Winnipeg, then took four straight from the Jets, who had not lost four consecutive games all season.
After winning the Metropolitan Division, Washington (49-26-7, 105 points) courted disaster in the first round, losing Games 1 and 2 at home before seizing four straight from the Columbus Blue Jackets. In the second round, the Capitals defeated the rival that had foiled their aspirations across eras, the Pittsburgh Penguins. The six-game series was capped by an overtime goal by center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who leads the playoffs in points, with 24. Washington won two games on the road to start the conference finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the best team in the East, then lost three consecutive contests, including two at home. The Capitals, who have played four more games than Vegas, finished the conference finals with two shutouts, heavy checking and nearly eight periods without ceding a goal.
Vegas and Washington are familiar with the hashtag #GMGM, shorthand for General Manager George McPhee. He built the Golden Knights from the ground up, spearheading the most successful inaugural season in North American pro sports. McPhee unearthed finds like center William Karlsson, a checker turned 40-goal scorer; forward Alex Tuch, an emergent offensive force; the Florida castoffs Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, the team’s top two point scorers in the playoffs; and a group of young defensemen who have quietly become the fulcrum of the team’s success. Defenseman Nate Schmidt, a former Capital drafted by McPhee in Washington, has been a revelation with the Knights, particularly in these playoffs.
McPhee took over as the Capitals’ general manager in 1997, leading them to the Cup finals in his first season and then seven division titles before being fired in 2014. He drafted Washington stars like Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, the playmaking center Nicklas Backstrom, the No. 1 defenseman John Carlson and the top goalie Braden Holtby. In fact, McPhee selected 13 of the 21 players who dressed in 50 or more games for the Capitals this season.
He has never won a Cup as a player or as an executive, but was assistant general manager for the Vancouver Canucks in 1994, when they lost to the Rangers in a seven-game final series.
Vegas set records early and often on its maiden voyage. By the end of February, it had broken the marks for the most victories and most points by an expansion team in its first season. It won the Pacific Division and then the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl as Western Conference champion.
The only trophy that the Washington Capitals hoisted in their inauspicious debut season in 1974-75 was a trash can they skated around the ice with after their lone road victory of the season, which came against the lowly Oakland Seals. They won only eight of 80 games over all, posted an acrid minus-265 goal differential and set several other ignominious records that are unlikely to be broken.
Ovechkin, the most productive goal-scorer of his era, has been a lightning rod for adulation and excoriation in his career. He has won all the top individual accolades — the Hart Memorial Trophy, the Ted Lindsay Award, the Art Ross Trophy, the Maurice (Rocket) Richard Trophy and the Calder Trophy. But postseason success has eluded him despite the Capitals finishing with the league’s best record three times and winning their division eight times during his 13-year career. Ovechkin has never won an Olympic medal and had never advanced beyond the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs until this year.
In these playoffs, he has been a consummate captain for the Capitals, providing timely goals, fierce physical play and contagious emotion. He ranks second in postseason goals (12) and points (22). He has also delivered more hits than all but three players, two of whom (right wings Tom Wilson and Devante Smith-Pelly) are on his team.
Schmidt, the former Capital, and his hard-hitting partner, Brayden McNabb, will be deployed as often as possible by Vegas Coach Gerard Gallant against Ovechkin and his potent linemate Kuznetsov.
On the other bench, Vegas has no captain. As an expansion team without an identity at the start of the season, the Golden Knights opted not to stitch the “C” onto anyone’s jersey. Their alternate captains exemplified their by-committee approach to leadership, designed to give everyone a voice in their newly built dressing room. They named six different alternate captains at the start of the season.
But Vegas’s de facto leader is the veteran goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who has a bit of a history with Ovechkin. He was a member of three Pittsburgh teams that eliminated the Capitals on the way to winning the Stanley Cup. While Holtby (2.04 goals-against average, .924 save percentage) has picked up steam for the Caps after not starting their first two playoff games, Fleury has been dominant from Day 1. He has provided not only statistical excellence (1.68, .947), but has elevated his play at important moments.
All times Eastern; x-if necessary
Monday: Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m., NBC
Wednesday: Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m., NBCSN
Saturday: Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m., NBCSN
Monday, June 4: Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m., NBC
*Thursday, June 7: Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m., NBC
*Sunday, June 10: Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m., NBC
*Wednesday, June 13: Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m., NBC
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