Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 24, 2018

History Awaits At The Stanley Cup Finals

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be traveling on Sunday, so the next post will be delayed until Monday. As always, thank you for your loyalty and support, and may everyone have a safe and enjoyable Memorial Day weekend.

Sometime soon, at most in just under three weeks and potentially as soon as a week from next Monday, a member of an NHL team will be handed the oldest trophy in professional sports. He will lift the nearly three-foot high, thirty-five-pound chalice, made of a silver and nickel alloy, high above his head. Then, no doubt with a huge smile on his face, he will begin a slow skate around a rink in either Washington or Las Vegas, and the celebration of a new Stanley Cup champion will begin.

As this is written, the first game of the Stanley Cup Finals is still a weekend away, so it is impossible to know whether the player skating the time-honored short program with Lord Stanley’s mug as his dance partner will be Alex Ovechkin, captain of the Washington Capitals, or a member of the Vegas Golden Knights, a team that has anointed six skaters as assistant captains but has yet to sew a “C” onto any player’s sweater. What we do now know, with the Finals matchup complete following Washington’s 4-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Wednesday, is that whichever team claims the Cup will do so for the first time, writing a remarkable ending to one of two very different but equally compelling sagas.

The Capitals were one of two expansion teams that joined the NHL in 1974, when the league moved from sixteen to eighteen teams. Washington’s early years were some of the worst in NHL history. The team managed to win just eight times in its inaugural eighty-game schedule, still an NHL record for futility in a season of at least seventy games. The next year’s record of 11-59-10 was only marginally better. It took the Capitals nine seasons to make the playoffs, fifteen to reach the Conference Finals, and nearly a quarter century to play for the Stanley Cup.

In the 1998 Finals Washington faced off against Detroit. The Red Wings were the defending champions and looked the part as they swept the Capitals. While the final score in each of the first three games was close, Detroit dominated the play. Washington’s only lead of the entire series came in Game 2, and in that contest the Caps coughed up a two-goal lead in the third period, eventually losing in overtime.

Two decades later, that whitewashing by the Red Wings remains the franchise’s only Stanley Cup Finals experience. While that will change starting Monday evening at T-Mobile Arena in the Nevada desert, the real pathos in the Capitals’ story is that it has taken this long. For thirteen of those twenty years the Caps have been led by arguably the best player in the game.

Alex Ovechkin is a nine-time NHL All-Star and three-time league MVP. He’s led the league in goals seven different seasons and won the Art Ross Trophy as the total scoring leader in 2012. He played his first game in a Capitals’ sweater while still a teenager and won Rookie of the Year honors in that initial 2005-06 season. Even now, at age 32, he still possesses one of the hardest shots in the league and can put the puck in the net from almost any angle. And Ovechkin has been no one man show. Over the years he’s usually been surrounded by a strong supporting cast, from Mike Green on defense at the beginning to Nicklas Backstrom at center and Braden Holtby in goal more recently.

During the Ovechkin era the Capitals have won their division eight seasons and captured the Presidents Trophy for the NHL’s best regular season record three times. But all of Ovechkin’s skill and the team’s regular season success has meant nothing come playoff time. In 2010, the first time Washington won the Presidents’ Trophy, the Capitals were shown the door in the first round of the playoffs by the eighth seeded Montreal Canadiens. The last two years, when the Caps again sported the best regular season record, their season ended in second round defeats to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Along the way Washington compiled an especially disheartening record in Game 7s, managing to win just three of ten such contests.

But this year the Capitals finally turned the tables on their Pennsylvania rivals, beating the defending champion Penguins in six games in the second round. Then in the Conference Finals Washington rallied from a three games to two deficit against this year’s Presidents’ Cup team, the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Capitals won Game 6 and home and Game 7 on the road, shutting down the potent Lightning offense with a pair of shutouts.  When the final horn sounded in Tampa Wednesday night, Alex Ovechkin was finally in the Stanley Cup Finals, just four wins away from washing away the litany of disappointment that has been the Capitals postseason story during his time leading the team.

But when the puck drops for Game 1 Monday night, he will find himself up against an even more remarkable postseason story. For Washington now faces the most improbable Finals opponent imaginable, the first-year expansion team from Sin City, the Vegas Golden Knights.  The oddsmakers in the Knights’ own city, who made the new team a 500-1 longest of long shots to win the Cup before the season began, stand to take a bath if Vegas prevails, though many will have to weigh their financial fortunes against their personal rooting interest for the local franchise.

Only one other first-year expansion team has made it to the Finals, but that was a rigged affair. When the NHL first expanded beyond the Original Six in 1967, the league also split into two divisions for the first time. All six expansion teams were placed in the West, while the six old franchises comprised the East. The St. Louis Blues finished third in the West during the regular season, but edged first the Flyers then the North Stars in seven games to advance to the Finals against Montreal. Not a single Western Conference team had a winning record that year, and the result of the postseason’s last series was a predictable sweep by the Habs.

The Golden Knights are no latter-day version of those expansion teams from a half-century ago, nor did the team’s inaugural season bear any resemblance to Washington’s hapless first year. General manager George McPhee took full advantage of the NHL’s miserly and rock-hard salary cap during the expansion draft. Teams were forced to make some good players available rather than try to fit their contracts under the cap for another season. Pittsburgh opted to go with young Matt Murray in goal rather than hold onto Marc-Andre Fleury at a cost of nearly $6 million. The Florida Panthers made a similar call with top scorer Jonathan Marchessault, and just like that McPhee had a netminder with three Stanley Cups on his resume and the beginnings of an offense.

The Knights also quickly bonded, using their status as castoffs from other teams as motivation. Then they won enormous local support by rallying a stricken Las Vegas, playing their first home game just days after the horrific mass shooting there last October. Still, no one could have foreseen that Vegas would win 51 games and easily capture the Pacific Division. Fleury put up some of his best numbers ever in net, and several skaters had career years. In the playoffs Vegas has just kept rolling, losing just three games through the first three rounds.

Now the two stories collide. Will the long-suffering fans in our nation’s capital finally see their hockey hero end years of postseason disappointment by hoisting the Cup? Or will the never-suffering fans in the country’s original adult playground watch their brand new team win the most unlikely championship in NHL history? The only certainty is that when that ceremonial skate with the Cup begins sometime soon, just one of these competing fairy tales will have come true.

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Responses

  1. Let the games begin! Have a safe journey, Mike.
    Ω

    • Thanks Allan. A weekend in NY for the Yankees-Angels series. I must be living right as I managed to avoid holiday weekend traffic issues both going down on Friday afternoon and coming back Sunday evening.

      M-

      Michael Cornelius
      603.498.5527
      http://www.onsportsandlife.com

      • You are a fortunate man, for sure. Happy Wednesday.
        Ω


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