Either the National Hockey League made a mistake or exhibited rare foresight. On Wednesday, the Washington Capitals shut out the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-0 in Tampa in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference final to advance to the Stanley Cup Final against the Vegas Golden Knights, who had earlier dispatched the Winnipeg Jets in five games in the Western Conference final. Then the league gave Washington time to rest, scheduling Game 1 of the Stanley Cup for tonight.
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That decision allowed the NBA to catch up. Game 7 in their Western Conference final is also tonight, between the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. The hook is whether we’re going to see a fourth consecutive Cavs/Warriors showdown in the NBA Finals. Last night, LeBron James won two consecutive elimination games, coming from 3-2 down to win the Eastern Conference final over the Celtics in seven.
[Full disclosure: I’m not crediting the rest of the Cleveland Cavaliers because after the L-Train scored 81 points, pulled down 26 boards, rang up 18 assists and blocked three shots in Games 6&7, no one else is, either]
But the point here is that the NHL didn’t have to cede the spotlight to the NBA. They could have cranked up Game 1 on Friday or Saturday to maintain the momentum they had built with fans in what has been yet another thrilling Stanley Cup playoff year. Instead, they let those fans discover two exciting seven-game series on the hardcourt, assuming they would be back on the ice Monday and the two leagues would carry on their tradition of alternating evenings during their Finals.
Here’s why you should come back to watch the “Better Late Than Never” Washington Capitals and the Sin City Wedding Crashers, more familiarly known as the Vegas Golden Knights fight it out for Lord Stanley’s chalice.
Breaking new ground
Expansion teams are supposed to be bad. They are not expected to contend for a championship straight out of the birth canal. Vegas’ opponent in this series posted the NHL’s worst regular season record when they debuted in 1974/75. In an 82-game season, the inaugural Washington Capitals failed to win ten. Their 8-62-12 record, in the immortal words of Tommy Boy Callahan, “left a mark” that still stands.
The last time an expansion team made the Stanley Cup Finals, the deck was stacked. The St Louis Blues were the best of six expansion teams in 1967. The group doubled the league’s size to 12 teams and the NHL saw fit to put them all in the same division and the so-called Original Six in the other. Therefore, an expansion team was guaranteed to get its butt kicked in an anticlimactic Stanley Cup Final for three consecutive seasons, until the league expanded again, moved the Chicago Blackhawks to the West and placed the Vancouver Canucks in the East.
[Further disclosure: The NHL is not good at this sort of thing]
How has Vegas broken out of the expansion dungeon? Well, when you pony up $500 million for an NHL team, you expect to get value for your money. Every NHL team was allowed to protect seven or eight players and one goalie, but that left significant talent available. Further, the league’s rigid salary cap provided opportunities for Vegas GM George McPhee to wheel and deal. And, as Sean McIndoe, otherwise known as @DownGoesBrown so adroitly observed, it gave the Golden Knights a built-in advantage. As a team without any players, it had no bad contracts to artificially lower its cap. Unless it took on a bad contract here or there [mind the foreshadowing], it had more room to sign quality players.
McPhee made several deals, hired an astute coach, and assembled a solid cast with speed and skill that surprised the hockey world. They started quickly and, despite everyone waiting for the other skate to drop, never faded. For all that, not everyone, including yours truly, is completely convinced. Washington is also something of a Cinderella story and has far more talent than the Golden Knights.
After beginning life as a doormat in the 1970s, the Washington Capitals developed a reputation as a strong regular season club that couldn’t cut it in the playoffs. The only Finals they reached came in 1998 when they were swept in four games by the Detroit Red Wings. More recently, they had become the whipping boys for the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. As Sidney Crosby and friends skated to back-to-back championships, they ripped through the Caps in the second round both times.
This season has been about putting the demons to bed for Barry Trots’ Capitals. First, Washington emphatically reversed their curse against the Pens, eliminating the champions in five second-round games. Then, as already noted, they made it past the Lightning, whose GM Steve Yzerman captained those ’98 Stanley Cup-winning Red Wings two decades prior.
So, while Vegas is living the dream, Washington is intent on exorcising a nightmare. Which brings us to their high priest.
The unstoppable force
As already stated, Vegas is a roster comprising the rest of the league’s 8th and 9th-best players or worse. Some have displayed ability we never knew they had [more of that foreshadowing stuff] but if you’re looking for a LeBron James in this series, you have to look to the Caps, who definitely have one. Alex Ovechkin ticks several L-Train boxes.
To begin, the Great Eight has the catchy nickname to match King James and just as you know who anyone means when they say “LeBron”, “Ovie” refers to just one star. The Russian tank has also had to contend with living in Sidney Crosby’s shadow in the same manner James has struggled to reach the same altitude in fans’ eyes as Air Jordan. Finally, there is the winning.
LeBron has now made eight straight finals. Michael only appeared in six but won them all. James has only three rings. Meanwhile, NHL fans will have to find another nominee for best player never to play in the Stanley Cup Finals. After 13 years, 607 regular season and 58 playoff goals, one Ross [scoring], three Hart [MVP], and seven Richard* [goals] Trophies, Alex Ovechkin has finally made the big dance.
*for any NHL neophytes, that’s a French Richard, pronounced Rishard.
Vegas will be doing their utmost to make him a wallflower. It will be difficult. To start, they must stay out of the penalty box. Ovie proved that he remains the king of the one-timer in the last round and that Steven Stamkos is the pretender. The Lightning captain does an almost perfect impression, but he’s the pretender nevertheless.
Another problem is that, while teams like to get physical to intimidate the opponent’s best player, Ovechkin hits back. Harder. And that’s if he doesn’t get in the first lick. If Washington emerges triumphant in this series, there is every chance their captain will add a Conne Smythe Trophy for Stanley Cup Playoff MVP to his collection.
Dark horse heroes
Here’s a short list of other skaters who can do damage in this series.
William Karlsson — The golden knight among Golden Knights, Karlsson was Vegas’ top scorer in the regular season with 43 goals and 35 assists, stunning NHL aficionados. In three seasons split between the Anaheim Ducks and Columbus Blue Jackets, the Swede had peaked at nine goals and 25 points. He had been pigeonholed as a third-line centre and tasked with checking the opponents more dangerous forwards. George McPhee agreed to take David Clarkson’s ridiculous contract off Columbus’ books providing Karlsson came with it. Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant then gave him the chance to showcase his offensive skills and was repaid handsomely for his trust. He’ll be Washington defensemen’s first priority throughout the series.
Evegeny Kuznetsov — If you want to describe Ovechkin as Washington’s thunder, comrade Kuznetsov is the lightning. Less physical but more technically gifted, Washington’s no.92 tends to be quiet for long stretches then strike out of nowhere in highly charged moments. If he gathers any momentum, well, let’s just say Vegas won’t be able to handle the chain-lightning.
Jonathan Marchessault — The Golden Knights may be a group that other NHL clubs didn’t value, let alone consider top stars. That doesn’t stop the former Florida Panther center from showing up to Vegas home games in a Golden Knight-themed Lamborghini.
Marchessault’s 27 goals and 48 assists put him only three points behind Karlsson during the regular season. The undersized forward has been hot in the playoffs, too.
Nicklas Backstrom — The Swede is Washington’s playmaker. He runs the power play and provides goals at even strength. He missed most of the Lightning series with what may have been a broken hand. It’s hard to be certain because transparency is another thing the NHL does not do well. Every injury throughout the season is listed as an upper or lower body injury. The former covers everything from a concussion to whatever damage Backstrom suffered. The latter includes everything from a sprained toe to irritable bowel syndrome. Backstrom has returned, surely benefitting from the five-day layover between series. He’ll make Ovechkin’s one-timer all the more dangerous with his pin-point passing.
James Neal, TJ Oshie, Andre Burakovsky — All three are snipers. Veteran left-winger Neal had 25 regular season goals and was in the Cup final last year with Nashville. Oshie is the silky-skilled winger you forget about on the power play while worrying about Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. He also famously took every penalty [because you can do that in international hockey] in the USA’s shootout win over Russia in the 2014 Olympics, scoring on four of six attempts. Burakovsky may be the most dangerous of the three. He was starving for goals until Game 7 against Tampa, when he broke out for two, clinching the series. Momentum to carry into the Finals?
Hockey is not a game for pacifists. That said, Vegas tends to get chippy by committee. Marchessault has a reputation for being something of a dirty player. Defenseman Deryk Engelland, too. The enforcer on the team is Ryan Reaves. He gave as good as he got from Winnipeg’s Dustin Byfuglien* in the Western final, which officially puts him at the grownup table.
But Washington can add the nasty edge to their advantage in skill. Beyond having to keep your head up whenever Ovechkin is on the ice, Mr Tom Wilson will happily introduce himself if he feels you aren’t showing proper deference or attention. He’s already taken a three-game suspension for a nasty, illegal hit to the head in these playoffs.
In addition, wingers Devante Smith-Pelly, Lars Eller and defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik all possess sadistic, opportunistic traits. The Golden Knights will have to oil their swivels before the series begins or they’ll lose their heads like Pittsburgh’s Zach Aston-Reese.
*Don’t worry neophytes, even lifelong NHL fans don’t know how you get ‘buff·lin from Byfuglien.
For the defense
You may be detecting a pattern here, but while Vegas’ defensive corps hasn’t any real standouts, they’re a solid, cohesive unit. Former Capital Nate Schmidt will sneak into the attacking end if Washington isn’t mindful.
I’ve already mentioned Orpik and Niskanen, who provide the muscle at the back for the Caps. John Carlson and Dmitri Orlov like to join the attack. Respectively, they’re Washington’s Ovechkin and Kuznetsov at the back. Carlson’s size and skill are a tough blend for opponents to handle and he has a cannon for a shot. Orlov, meanwhile, is the George Clooney of puckhandling, which is to say, with Pavel Datsyuk retired, there are no danglers smoother and more handsome than the Russian backliner.
Who was that masked man?
Goaltenders have a well-deserved reputation for being strange. Why not when we are willing to throw our bodies and heads in front of a dense, frozen object moving at speeds that would help a traffic cop meet his weekly ticket quota? The puck isn’t the only danger. When you smother one you can occasionally expect a knee or skate to ‘accidentally’ find your skull. At other times, opposing forwards might lose their feet [or not] and barrel into you. You’re lucky if they simply stuff you into the net rather than pinning you against a post. If a goalie wasn’t a bit off before getting between the pipes, time will correct the error. Vegas and Washington both have unusual personalities in goal.
Marc-Andre Fleury — The Vegas netminder came from Pittsburgh in one of those trades where George McPhee squeezed out a little extra. The Penguins threw in a 2020 second-round draft pick to ensure McPhee didn’t select any other player from their roster. Pittsburgh had two Stanley Cup proven goaltenders, could only protect [and pay] one, and elected to go with the younger, saner Matt Murray. Again, give it time.
Earlier in his career, Fleury had two or three inconsistent playoff series that had tagged him a liability. He laughed it off. Literally. The French-Canadian’s spirit is unquenchable. He never stops smiling no matter the situation. After losing his starting job to Murray, he stepped in when the youngster was injured, carried the Penguins through a difficult series against the Ottawa Senators, and left many fans worried when Murray was reinstalled in goal after recovering. In the Western Conference final, after losing Game 1 decisively to Winnipeg, then evening the series, Fleury delivered a wet willy to Blake Wheeler as the Jets forward tussled with Golden Knights’ defenders behind the goal after a whistle.
Despite posting a ridiculous .947 save percentage in these playoffs, Fleury will be overmatched in this series. As usual, he won’t care.
Brandon Holtby — At the other end, the Capitals’ goalie is the opposite kind of strange. His intensity is legendary. Teammates won’t go near him before a game. They’ll rarely talk to him during. Which is fine. Holtby talks, or chants, to himself. He stares vacantly out from his mask in a way that makes you wonder whether he might have been a serial killer if hockey hadn’t provided an outlet. Dexter and Jason Voorhies have nothing on him. The Capitals and NHL may be saving innocent lives by keeping him employed.
Add to that Holtby’s ridiculous talent. His reflexes are blindingly quick; his positioning perfect; his ability to move post-to-post unrivaled. Ask Steven Stamkos.
Holtby came into the playoffs riding the bench after a rough late-season patch. Phillip Grubauer struggled in the first round, and Holtby reclaimed his net. He was the difference in Game 7 against the Lightning, posting a shutout, making several defiant saves while counterpart Andrei Vasilevskiy struggled 200 feet away. His .930 save percentage doesn’t match Fleury’s but he’s trending up.
If I were a betting man…
Despite all the talent on their roster, the Capitals struggled through a regular season they usually dominate. Vegas finished four points above them in the overall standings. But the regular season is not the playoffs and Washington is gathering momentum. The Golden Knights keep proving people wrong and maybe it’s my turn but, while I don’t think they’ll roll over, I can’t see them handling the Caps.
The series begins in Las Vegas but the Stanley Cup won’t stay there. Washington in six.
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Martin Palazzotto, former goaltender, is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.