The Washington Capitals are back in the Cup Final for the first time in 20 years against the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, the team everyone thought would be awful.
Photos by Kim Klement, Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
The Stanley Cup Final is set, and it will see the Washington Capitals, a team that never wins it all because they're choking dogs, face the Vegas Golden Knights, a team that never wins it all because they didn't even exist until a few minutes ago. The world doesn't make sense and we've all been exposed as fools for caring about any of this. Nothing matters. On to the preview!
In this corner: The Washington Capitals (49-26-7, 105 points, +18 goals differential), who finished first in the Metro despite taking a significant step back after back-to-back Presidents' Trophies.
The road so far: They fell behind the Blue Jackets 2-0 and then went to overtime in Game 3, at which point I tweeted this. They won that series, slayed the dragon by finally beating the Penguins in round two, and then came back to beat the Lightning in seven.
The history books: Ugly. The Capitals have never won a Stanley Cup in franchise history, which dates back to 1974. They went to the final once, back in 1998, but didn't win a game, and spent the next 20 years failing to even make it out of the second round. Oh, and they have a history of blowing big leads in the playoffs, often in the most crushing way imaginable. Now they're four games away from finally winning it all. And they're not even close to being the most surprising team in the final. Nothing matters.
Injury report: Brooks Orpik and Devante Smith-Pelly both left Game 7 with injuries and are considered day to day, and Nicklas Backstrom is still playing through some sort of hand injury that's clearly affecting him. Also, it's the playoffs, so we'll eventually find out that John Carlson's sternum is made out of papier-mâché from a child's science fair project but nobody told us.
One player to watch: Braden Holtby. Here's the ugly truth about the NHL playoffs: It's not really about who wants it more, or who knows how to win, or even who has the best team. Often, it's just about the goalies. That's it. The best goalie wins, and everyone else is just there to shoot pucks into whichever goalie goes super-nova and becomes unbeatable.
Right now, that's Holtby. He had a miserable season, one that even saw the Caps hand the starting duties to Philipp Grubauer at the start of the playoffs. But he won the job back, got better as the postseason wore on, recording his first shutout of the entire season in Game 6 against the Lightning, and then earned another in Game 7. And it's not like he's some scrub having the hot streak of a lifetime. This is the 2016 Vezina winner we're talking about, not to mention last year's runner up. All season long, Caps fans wondered where that goaltender had gone. They found him, just in time.
Key number: 11 – The number of minutes that passed in Wednesday's third period before the Lightning managed a shot on net. That's insane. The Capitals were on the road, defending a three-goal lead against a star-studded roster that had scored more goals than any team in the last eight years and was in all-out attack mode with their season on the line. And the Lightning didn't even get a shot for more than half the period. Hockey fans love to talk about how defense wins championships, and it's usually overstated. But that was a clinic in how to shut down the other side, and if the Caps can bring that approach to the final then they'll be in great shape.
Dominant narrative: The redemption of Alexander Ovechkin. For years, he's been the guy who couldn't come through in the big one. Whether it was the NHL playoffs or the Olympics or anywhere that a meaningful championship was on the line, Ovechkin was there, and he was skating off the ice with his head down while somebody else—usually Sidney Crosby—was celebrating. And there was a simple reason: He was the sort of player who could rack up personal stats, but couldn't help you win when it mattered.
Never mind if it was true—it wasn't. Never mind if the stats backed it up—they didn't. Sports fan love this narrative, and once it lands on a superstar, there's no way to shake it. Except for one: Win the whole damn thing. Ovechkin has been scoring big goals all spring, including the winner in Game 7 against Tampa. This is his time. This is where he kills the narrative once and for all. This is where he redefines his legacy forever.
Or else, he reinforces it. Those are the stakes.
The big question: How much did the Lightning take out of them? That was a brutal, nasty series, and it went the distance. Meanwhile, their opponents wrapped up their series in five and have been off since Sunday. We saw this dynamic play out in the Western Conference final, where a Winnipeg team that was better on paper came off a seven-game series to face a better-rested Vegas team. The Knights looked rusty in Game 1, then took over the series as the Jets seemed to run out of gas. The Capitals are tired and beaten up right now. They have until Monday to get some rest because the NHL hates to ever have momentum, but fatigue could still be a factor—especially if this one goes long.
Bandwagon-ability: Pretty high. It's not for the weak of heart, but we've been beating the Caps bandwagon drum for years. So far, it always ends in tears. Maybe this one does, too. But after two decades of misery, this Caps team is good, fun, and easy to like. If you're looking for a bandwagon, this is a good one. You can have Lozo's old seat.
And in this corner: The Vegas Golden Knights (51-24-7, 109 points, +43 goals differential). That was good enough to win the Pacific Division, and gave them the fifth-best record in the league.
The road so far: They swept the Kings, beat the Sharks in six and then stunned the favored Jets in five. That conference final win saw them beat Winnipeg in four straight after losing the opener, the first time all year that the Jets had lost that many in a row. At just 15 games, this is one of the shortest roads to the final of any team in recent memory.
The history books: Not applicable. As you may have heard, the Golden Knights are an expansion team.
Injury report: William Carrier has been out since the San Jose series, but could be available. Clayton Stoner remains out long term. And maybe most importantly, Marc-Andre Fleury seemed to tweak something in the clincher against the Jets. He didn't leave the game and seemed OK afterward, but it's a situation worth keeping an eye on.
One player to watch: Jonathan Marchessault. The diminutive forward's journey to the Knights' top line has been well-documented, and the Panthers' decision to make him available remains indefensible. But it happened, and he's jumped on the opportunity to make the leap from underrated (and underpaid) contributor to outright star. He racked up 75 points during the season, and has 18 more so far through the playoffs. Oh, he also drives a custom-made Lamborghini to home games now. Life is good, is what we're saying.
Key number: .947 – Fleury's save percentage so far in the playoffs. Look, I could dig up some fancy analytics, or sell you on the Knights' special teams or maybe even their imposing home record. But none of that matters as long as Fleury keeps playing like this. If you're getting .947 goaltending, you win. The Capitals will either figure out a way to get pucks past Fleury, or they're done. Simplistic, sure, but also true.
Dominant narrative: Should we be enjoying this? We've moved past the whole "Can you believe this is happening?" thing, because believe it or not, it's happening. An expansion team is about to play for the Stanley Cup. Now the question is whether or not that's a good thing.
It's become a touchy subject in the hockey world. Plenty of fans are loving this, and it's not hard to see why. It's a great underdog story, featuring a team that was literally constructed from the league's castoffs and misfits. They're not just winning, they've proving that everyone in the league—GMs, coaches, media, everyone—was wrong about, well, everything. You can see why some would find that story irresistible.
But not everyone. For some fans, especially the diehards, all of this just feels wrong. Call it jealousy if you want, but the Knights are breaking the way we think about the NHL, and about how a champion is supposed to be built. We've all been repeatedly told that the Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy to win in all of sports, and now a team is about to do it by accident. There's a thin line between "anything can happen" and "nothing actually matters" and the Knights are dangerously close to crossing it.
Or maybe not. Everyone is entitled to their opinion here, and there isn't a single right answer. But the debate is raging, and it's going to keep building as the series goes on.
Conn Smythe watch: It's pretty much Fleury all the way. In fact, he's been so good that even if the Knights lose in the final, there's a slim chance he could still win the award. A player from the losing team hasn't won the Conn Smythe since 2003 and it's only happened five times in history, but four of those were goaltenders.
The big question: When I was a kid back it the 1980s there was a coin-op arcade hockey game called "Hat Trick." Each team had one skater and one goalie, and you had to control both of them at the same time which made it really confusing, because you'd be trying to make a save with your goaltender and after a while you'd realize your one skater was off humping the boards in the corner and then when you tried to get him back the goalie would move out of the way and the other team would score. Still, it was a fun game and the players left little lines on the ice when they skated which was really cool. But then the period would end and while you were looking for another quarter a Zamboni would come out onto the ice. Except it very clearly wasn't a Zamboni, it was a tank. Like, it didn't have a gun barrel, but it had a rotating turret that the driver sat in, and tracks instead of wheels, and it just kind of went back and forth instead of following the typical Zamboni pattern. What was the deal with that? What were they trying to say?
Anyway, I'm going to spend the next few days thinking about that, because I have a better chance of figuring it out than understanding anything about this Golden Knights season. Nothing matters.
Bandwagon-ability: It really depends on whether you can get past the whole expansion team thing. If you can, then between Fleury and all the redemption narratives and the goofy pre-game shows and the underdog story, they're kind of a no-brainer.
Head-to-head: The Golden Knights won both regular season matchups because of course they did.
A word about predictions: So far this postseason, these previews are 10-for-14. We've picked the Capitals to win each round, and been right every time. We've picked the Golden Knights to lose each round, and been wrong every time. We don't know anything because nobody knows anything because, one last time, nothing matters. But we've made it this far and you want a prediction, so here we go. Let's get crazy.
The prediction: Capitals in four. Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.
Bonus prediction that is oddly specific: Alexander Ovechkin scores the Stanley Cup-winning goal in overtime.