The final nobody expected

Knights vs. Caps for Stanley Cup takes the cake

29.05.2018
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Washington Capitals forward Alexander Ovechkin (left) reaches for the puck against Vegas Golden Knights defenceman Nate Schmidt (right) in the first game of the Stanley Cup Final. Photo: Gary A. Vasquez / USA Today Sports / Reuters

The Stanley Cup final between the Vegas Golden Knights and the Washington Capitals is underway, and there is only one thing that is certain about it.

Namely, if anyone bet on these two teams meeting in the final, that person is now extremely rich.

Vegas defeated Washington 6-4 at T-Mobile Arena on Monday, the highest total Game One score since the Chicago Blackhawks beat the Philadelphia Flyers 6-5 to open the 2010 final. But the wild back-and-forth action – there were four lead changes for the first time in finals history – seemed almost routine and predictable compared to the paths that these clubs took to the NHL’s annual showdown.

For a brand-new franchise to top the Pacific Division with 109 points in its first season would be an overwhelming success in itself. But the Golden Knights didn’t stop there. Under coach Gerard Gallant, this band of castoffs turned 2017/18 into an over-the-top fairy tale by manhandling the Los Angeles Kings (4-0), San Jose Sharks (4-2), and Winnipeg Jets (4-1) in their quest to become the only first-year team in league history to win it all.

Gallant has staved off giddiness by inculcating a living-in-the-moment mindset: “It’s one series at a time, and it really doesn’t feel like a big deal right now. It just feels like we’re coming to work, we’re getting our team prepared, and that’s what's happened the first three series.”

Even considering the inspiration that the Knights have given their community (they retired the jersey number 58 to honour the 58 victims of one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history on 1st October 2017 in Las Vegas), there is still no truly rational explanation for what a roster that looks competitive but not transcendent on paper has accomplished.

To put it in perspective, the only other expansion franchise ever to crack the final in its first season was 50 years ago. And the 1968 St. Louis Blues had an easier road, as they played in the 12-team NHL’s Western Division, which was composed entirely of fellow expansion franchises. They only had to win two series against the Philadelphia Flyers and Minnesota North Stars before losing four straight to the Montreal Canadiens in the final.

Meanwhile, the Capitals, who are making their first Stanley Cup final appearance since losing four straight to the Detroit Red Wings in 1998, are doing so in a year prior to which many critics had written them off. Coach Barry Trotz’s men won back-to-back President’s Trophies as the NHL’s top regular-season club in 2016 and 2017, but crashed out in the second round both times against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

It looked like Washington would remain forever cursed and Alexander Ovechkin would forever play second banana to Sidney Crosby in their long-hyped rivalry. That sense increased after the Capitals lost notable names like Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Karl Alzner in the off-season due to their salary cap issues. However, the team itself clearly didn’t lose faith.

“Our roster changed substantially last year, and we have a number of young guys that were put in our line-up that have given us a little bit of a jolt of maybe some speed and also just the youthful enthusiasm,” said Trotz. “And we’ve got a real good, strong core that have been in place with a really good culture. They’ve won a lot of games the last four years. So I think our guys take pride in that. I think that’s just carried over.”

In these playoffs, the Capitals finally got over the hump by dethroning the Penguins in Round Two. It is now up to them to prove that their high-end European quality – epitomized by Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and playoff points leader Yevgeni Kuznetsov (25) – can trump the ferocious straight-line attack and two-way play of the Knights. (It is a particularly unusual situation since Vegas GM George McPhee, who has earned kudos for how he built his expansion roster, also drafted 12 of the current Capitals players while serving as Washington’s GM through 2013/14.)

“We work so hard all year,” said Ovechkin. “I don’t think nobody believes in us and nobody believes in Vegas, and we’re right now in the Stanley Cup Finals, and we fight for a Cup. Come enjoy this moment. I think everybody enjoys it.”

It’s just the sixth time in Stanley Cup final history that both teams are seeking their first title ever.

Generally, the safe bet in finals is that the established stars will overcome the plucky underdogs, whether you’re talking about the 1982 New York Islanders beating the Vancouver Canucks, the 1996 Colorado Avalanche beating the Florida Panthers, or the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes beating the Edmonton Oilers. That same pattern played out most recently in the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship gold medal game in Copenhagen, Denmark when Sweden, loaded with 20 NHL roster players, defeated Switzerland 3-2.

If the pattern holds true, many hockey fans will be happy to see Ovechkin, a surefire future member of both the IIHF Hall of Fame and the Hockey Hall of Fame, drinking champagne in June. Usually, the seven-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner is more likely in the hunt for World Championship gold with his native Russia in May than coming close to the Stanley Cup.

However, it is getting much harder to bet against the Golden Knights. They have spawned unlikely heroes this season, like William Karlsson, a Swedish journeyman who exploded for 43 regular-season goals, and Tomas Nosek, an undrafted Czech who scored twice, including the winner, in Game One.

Although people once scoffed at the notion of an NHL team in Vegas, suggesting it would be style over substance, this team has far more to offer than the Medieval Times-style pre-game show with sword-wielding warriors and catapults and the “Let’s get ready to rumble!” line-up announcements of Michael Buffer.

Historically, teams that win Game One of the final have gone on to hoist the Cup more than 78 per cent of the time. Vegas, which has triumphed in 11 of 12 games in which it scored the first goal, is now just three wins away. It’s incredible for a team that got as low as 500-1 odds of going all the way from the Sin City bookmakers back in September.

“It hasn’t been done,” said Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who won three Cups with the Penguins and a 2010 Olympic gold medal as Canada’s third netminder. “Nobody expected it. I don’t think anybody would have seen us here. It’s been fun. The whole season has been fun. We’ve been having a good time being a part of it. Proud to be part of this team and being able to push those barriers to make it to the final.”

Stay tuned. There will undoubtedly be more twists and turns as we move deeper into what may be the strangest Stanley Cup final ever.

LUCAS AYKROYD

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