The most unlikely Stanley Cup Finals in history will open Monday night in Las Vegas, home of the amazing expansion team that has shown the NHL that a bunch of “misfits” can jell in record time.
The first-year Vegas Golden Knights will host Washington in Game 1 of a series that will give the winner its first Stanley Cup championship.
Vegas, whose odds to win the Cup were as high as 500-to-1 before the season, is no longer considered a long shot as it tries to write the final chapter in the most remarkable expansion-team story in the history of the four major sports.
“We’re approaching it like we’ve approached every game this year — just focus on ourselves,” said Vegas defenseman Luca Sbisa, who broke into the NHL with the Flyers in 2008. “It’s going to be a test, but if we just focus on ourselves and play our game, I think we have a pretty good chance.”
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Vegas might have more gas in the tank because it needed just 15 games (12-3) to get to the title round. Washington needed 19 (12-7).
This is the sixth Finals in NHL history to match two teams chasing their first Stanley Cup.
Caps superstar Alex Ovechkin, the 32-year-old left winger who is in his 13th season, is also trying to win his first Cup. Ditto Nicklas Backstrom, 30, who has been Ovechkin’s Washington teammate for 11 of those seasons.
“We’ve been waiting a long time for this,” Backstrom told reporters after the visiting Capitals won Game 7 Wednesday against Tampa Bay, 4-0, to capture the Eastern Conference crown. “So now that we’ve reached the Final, we’re going to do everything we can to do something special here for us, for the team, and for the city.”
As for Ovechkin, the Capitals’ captain and the franchise leader in goals (607), points (1,122), and many other categories, he has played with unbridled passion throughout the playoffs.
“Ovi’s been on a mission,” Caps coach Barry Trotz said.
Vegas has the home-ice advantage in the best-of-seven series, which would seem to be a big advantage because the Knights went 29-10-2 at reverberating T-Mobile Arena in the regular season and are 6-1 in the playoffs. But both teams have been exceptional on the road in the postseason. In fact, the Knights and Capitals have both clinched all three series wins on the road.
The Caps are 8-2 on the road in the 2018 playoffs, outscoring their opponents, 36-20, in those 10 games. Ovechkin has 15 points, including eight goals, in road playoff games this year.
Washington, which is also led by Evgeny Kuznetsov, reached the Finals one other time in its history, losing to Detroit in four straight in 1998.
Kuznetsov tops all NHL players with 24 points (11 goals, 13 assists) in the playoffs, and Ovechkin is second with 22 points (12 goals, 10 assists).
They will be trying to solve goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who has a 1.68 goals-against average, a .947 save percentage, and four shutouts in these playoffs. Fleury won three Cups with Pittsburgh, and he is aiming for his third straight ring. The Penguins won the Cup in 2016 and 2017.
Fleury won Vegas’ only two regular-season matchups against Washington, beating the Caps, 3-0, and 4-3. In the latter game, Reilly Smith had a pair of goals to key the win.
The 33-year-old Fleury has never been better.
“I think you’re always as good as your team,” he said, modestly. “The guys in front of me have been great.”
Fleury’s counterpart, Braden Holtby, began the postseason as Washington’s No. 2 goalie. But he has flourished since taking over the No. 1 role, compiling a 12-6 record with 2.04 GAA and a .924 save percentage. Holtby will take a shutout streak of nearly 160 minutes into Monday.
The series also matches Vegas general manager George McPhee against the team he built. McPhee was the Caps’ GM from 1997 to 2014, and he drafted or acquired more than half of the players on Washington’s roster, including Ovechkin, Kuznetzov, star defenseman John Carlson, Backstrom, and Holtby.
McPhee made great picks in the expansion draft by selecting Jonathan Marchessault (75 points this season) from Florida, William Karlsson (43 goals, 78 points, plus-49) from Columbus, defenseman Nate Schmidt (36 points, plus-19) from Washington, and Fleury (2.24 GAA, .927 save percentage) from Pittsburgh. He also acquired Smith (Florida), Alex Tuch (Minnesota), and defenseman Shea Theodore (Anaheim) in shrewd deals made to allow those teams to protect other players. Each of those three players had career highs in points.
Vegas had 13 players register personal bests in points, demonstrating that McPhee knew they had potential — or that head coach Gerard Gallant brought out the best in them.
The Golden Knights have worn down teams with their speed, quick passing, and tenacity, but the Capitals play with a physical edge — especially winger Tom Wilson — that might throw Vegas off its game.
Then again, Winnipeg was a big, physical team, and Vegas beat the Jets in five games to create this intriguing and improbable matchup.