LAS VEGAS — Whodathunkit?
Who in their right mind would possibly have thought we’d be standing back inside T-Mobile Arena preparing for the Stanley Cup Final less than a year after the Vegas Golden Knights came into being with the expansion draft? Who could have dreamed the Washington Capitals would be standing in their way after an off-season where they lost Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams, Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt?
“The Stanley Cup Final that was never meant to be, right?” said Schmidt, now a big minute-eater on the Vegas blue line. “You know what, you look at this group on both sides, they were both down and out. You look at the players that we have, it was supposed to be a down-and-out team, we weren’t supposed to be that great. And a closing window for [a Capitals] team that just got younger and got hot and started playing well. They were still a very good team, still very good key players.
“For us you just saw guys expand their roles and be able to become players in this league that we all thought we could be. But, I don’t really know how you can describe it. I don’t know if anyone can come up with an answer for that.”
It’s still a bit surreal.
Even with the extra break the NHL gave us before kicking things off with Game 1 on Monday night, it’s hard to wrap your mind around what we’re about to witness.
The Capitals were born in 1974 and had an eight-win, 21-point season that still stands as the worst in NHL history. For 43 years, they’ve struggled. Even the great seasons ended in disappointment. They’ve never even won a game beyond the Conference Final after getting swept in the 1998 Stanley Cup Final by Detroit — the only other time they played for a championship.
Vegas has played 97 games. Ever.
The Golden Knights have defied every reasonable expectation by capturing the Pacific Division and storming their way through these playoffs with a 12-3 record. The Stanley Cup is supposed to be the hardest trophy in sports to win. But dare we say it, this group has almost made it look easy with how methodically they’ve picked apart their opponents.
“What we talked about before we started the season was make sure we compete every night, make sure we get better every day, and have fun and work hard and be competitive,” said Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant. “We didn’t say [let’s get] 25 wins or 40 wins or — what did we end up with, 51 wins? We never talked about it. It was just about making our team better every day and be competitive.”
They now stand four victories away from authoring a tale so unbelievable that Hollywood would almost certainly reject the script.
The Vegas–Washington final is a writer’s dream. It is spilling over with storylines. You have the Capitals finally slaying Pittsburgh during this unexpected playoff run only to run into old Penguins nemesis Marc-Andre Fleury, who is putting together a Conn Smythe-worthy performance in the Vegas net.
You have George McPhee, who is basically the architect of both teams. He was the Capitals GM for 17 years before being fired in 2014 and then got hired to build the Golden Knights. Oh, and the man who replaced him in Washington, Brian MacLellan, played youth hockey with McPhee in Guelph and was his college roommate and teammate at Bowling Green.
“It’s just another chapter in this crazy book that is our season,” said McPhee.
There is generational superstar Alex Ovechkin chasing his first Stanley Cup after bearing more than his fair share of criticism for Washington’s past failings. There is a Vegas team that doesn’t even have a captain now potentially within days of accepting that iconic trophy from commissioner Gary Bettman.
They sent veteran defenceman Deryk Engelland up to grab the Campbell Bowl after beating Winnipeg in the Western Conference Final. He’s a longtime Vegas resident who played an important role in helping his teammates get comfortable here.
“It was an easy solution,” said Gallant. “The guys talked about it, they said, ‘We want Deryk Engelland to go get the trophy for us.’ We never thought about that back in October or September in training camp.”
Truth be told, neither team really saw this coming. The salary cap forced Washington to shed some key contributors last summer and MacLellan told reporters on more than one occasion that their championship window was likely closed.
Most prognosticators picked the Golden Knights to finish 31st. Last June 21, the night of the expansion draft here, I wrote: “They won’t be a threat to win the Pacific Division in the inaugural season.”
Instead, the Golden Knights have struck every note correctly, right from the moment they kicked off their home opener with a moving ceremony to honour the 58 people murdered in an attack on the Strip just days before.
“This city, this organization, they have done everything right,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz. “I mean, it’s fantastic. It’s a vibrant team. It’s a good team. It’s a vibrant city. It keeps growing. But what I love about Vegas, there’s no city on the planet Earth like Vegas, and they did it Vegas’ way.
“I really, really commend the league and the ownership and all that to do it the Vegas way. It’s entertainment. It’s fun.”
Against all odds, the stakes have been raised. With two teams that didn’t count on being here, there’s an understanding that it might never come around again.
“We’re not satisfied. I think we want more,” said Vegas forward Jonathan Marchessault. “All the work that we’ve done all year doesn’t mean anything if you’re not the champion at the end of the year. I think everybody thinks like that and we’re going to be ready.”
What a series. We probably won’t see anything else like it again in our lifetime.