It’s hard to find someone in the hockey world who, if they’re being honest with themselves, isn’t awestruck by the Vegas Golden Knights’ accomplishments.
When the puck drops for Game 1 on Monday, it will be yet another game the Golden Knights weren’t supposed to be in; yet another moment that prompts all of the pundits to say, “nobody saw this coming;” yet another chance to reflect on how far they’ve come, how much doubt everyone had about Vegas’ chances, and how incredible it is that an expansion team has reached the finals in its first season of play.
The oddsmakers in the Golden Knights’ own city gave the new team the worst Stanley Cup odds in the entire NHL before the season.
Most of their players got to Vegas because their former clubs didn’t deem them worthy of using a protection slot on them in the expansion draft, albeit all for different reasons. Many of them are outcasts in the most literal sense of the word, including their head coach Gerard Gallant, who’s a finalist to win the Jack Adams Award just a season after he was unceremoniously fired from a plus-.500 Florida Panthers club and two seasons after he led that team to the playoffs.
But the great stories that sports fans cherish and tell their grandchildren about won’t be limited to the Vegas Golden Knights’ locker room.
Like the Golden Knights, the Washington Capitals’ mere presence in the Stanley Cup finals is a story on its own. A quick Twitter search could easily yield thousands of comments from fans in recent weeks predicting the Caps would “choke,” (they haven’t), that they’d lose to Pittsburgh (they didn’t) or that their falling down 3-2 in the series to Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference Finals was the penultimate nail in their playoff coffin (it wasn’t).
A year ago this month, the Washington Post ran a story titled, Different Season, same story: Capitals eliminated by Penguins in Game 7.
“You wonder how much disappointment you have to put yourself through before you can find a way to get the job done,” forward T.J. Oshie told The Post at the time.
Indeed, the Washington Capitals are appearing in the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in 20 years, since the Capitals lost to the Detroit Red Wings in 1997-98. This, despite the fact the Alex Ovechkin-led team has made the playoffs in nine of the last 10 seasons, has finished first in their division in seven of those years and won the Presidents Trophy (best record in the NHL) in three of those years.
Ovechkin could finally hoist a cup for the first time in his Hall of Fame career.
So, in a way, both clubs are underdogs for different reasons; an almost obtuse thing to suggest, given that the Knights and Capitals each finished third in their respective conferences.
But for either team, winning the Stanley Cup this season would be both remarkable and memorable.
For the Golden Knights, William Karlsson led his team in goals (43) and points (78) in the regular season, finishing third and 25th in those respective categories among all NHL skaters. He’s scored 6-7-13 in 15 games in these playoffs. Since the start of the postseason, Jonathan Marchessault has paced his team in goals and points, scoring 8-10-18, while defenseman Reilly Smith’s 14 assists are the second-most in the playoffs behind Winnipeg’s Blake Wheeler (18).
Perhaps the most valuable player for the Knights so far, though, is their goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury. His four shutouts, .947 save percentage and 1.68 GAA are all tops among goalies who played at least five playoff games this year. But what the numbers don’t show is the quality of some of his saves, including this one on Jets forward Mark Scheifele.
Rightfully so, Fleury’s name has been mentioned in Conn Smythe Trophy conversation.
For Washington, netminder Braden Holtby hasn’t been too bad, either. His .923 save percentage and 2.04 GAA are third and second, respectively, among goalies with five appearances in these playoffs. He shut out the Lightning to clinch Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, his second shutout of the playoffs.
Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov leads the Stanley Cup Playoffs with 24 points, while Ovechkin is right behind him with 22. Ovechkin (12) and Kuznetsov (11) are also both in the top-3 in goals, behind Scheifele (14).
Vegas (51-24-7, 115 points) will have home ice advantage and host the first two games of the series at T-Mobile Arena, the first game being played on Monday at 5 p.m. MST. The Golden Knights are 6-1 at home in the playoffs and 6-2 on the road, while Washington (49-26-7, 105 points) is 8-2 on the road, but just 4-5 at home. The Capitals will host Games 3, 4 and 6.
During the regular season, Vegas won both of its games against the Capitals, one at home and one on the road.