After a hard-fought month and a half of playoff hockey, the 2018 Stanley Cup Final is here. In a surprising twist, the final two teams standing are the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights.
At the beginning of the season, no one could have predicted that the expansion Golden Knights would have made it to the playoffs—let alone the championship round. Since 1968, no expansion team has played well enough to reach the playoffs in their inaugural season. In fact, the Capitals went 8-67-5 in their opening campaign 43 years ago, the worst mark in NHL history. However, the Golden Knights’ 51-24-7 record and 109 points were good enough to secure the Pacific Division title.
Last June, Golden Knights General Manager George McPhee constructed a roster of overlooked and unwanted players. William Karlsson, acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets in the expansion draft last June, had scored no more than nine goals in a single season prior to 2017-18. This year, he put up forty-three. Deryk Engelland, 36 years old and an enforcer for the Calgary Flames last season, stepped into a leadership role as an assistant captain for the first time in his career. Every player had something to prove and the opportunity to do so.
Although it remained somewhat doubtful whether they could translate their success to the postseason, the Golden Knights quickly swept the Los Angeles Kings in the opening round before taking down the San Jose Sharks in six games. Their greatest challenge came in the Western Conference Finals against the Winnipeg Jets, a high-scoring team with aspirations of their own. However, Golden Knights goaltender Marc-André Fleury stifled the Jets offence, and Vegas took the series in five games. As long as Fleury stays solid in the crease, Washington is in serious trouble.
However, if Washington continues to play its game, they will be just as threatening. With 11 division championships over the past two decades, the Capitals have been one of the best teams in the NHL, but have consistently faltered in the playoffs. They have failed to advance beyond the second round since 1998 and have fallen to the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins in each of the past two seasons. This year, they finally slayed their dragon and rode their momentum through a seven-game series against the Tampa Bay Lightning to earn their spot in the franchise’s second Stanley Cup Final ever.
Capitals captain Alexander Ovechkin finally has the opportunity to add a Stanley Cup ring to his trophy case. The 13-year veteran will see his best opportunity to add a championship to his resume. He can thank McPhee for some of his team’s success: Before leading Vegas, the executive served as GM for the Caps and built most of the team that his current project will have to face.
Ultimately, when it comes to this point in the postseason, all bets are off. Both teams have momentum entering the series, but whichever team holds onto it will be set to raise the Stanley Cup.
Given how evenly matched these two teams are, this series will go the distance. If Fleury stays hot and shuts down the Washington offence, Vegas will defeat Washington on home ice and get their storybook ending. Whatever the result, hockey fans can expect a thrilling series.