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Marveling at a Stanley Cup Final that 'was never meant to be'

As amazing as they've been, the Vegas Golden Knights don't have a monopoly on improbable hockey journeys this season.

Their progress to the Stanley Cup Final will long stand as a model of how to build a franchise, and their compassion will be remembered by a city that endured the unthinkable tragedy of the music festival shootings last October but gained a stronger sense of community through the team's good performance and the good deeds players carried out in their new hometown. But the Washington Capitals have written an unlikely tale of their own, finally able to loosen their ever-too-tight grip on their sticks during the playoffs and channel their immense talent into a shot at the Cup.

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The Golden Knights, fueled by speed and elevated by Marc-Andre Fleury's superb goaltending, refused to be a sad-sack expansion team. The Capitals, refreshed by an infusion of youth and a new physical edge, refused to choke. The result, starting on Monday at T-Mobile Arena, will be a matchup no one saw coming.

"The Stanley Cup Final that was never meant to be," said Vegas defenseman Nate Schmidt, who was plucked from Washington in the expansion draft that launched the Golden Knights last June. "You know what, though, you look at this group — on both sides — they were both down and out. You look at the players that we have and we were supposed to be down and out. They weren't supposed to be that great. And a closing window for another team that just got younger and got hot. … I don't know how to describe it."

Call it fun and entertaining so far. "Every guy in our room is not satisfied yet. We're close but we still have to win four games now," Vegas defenseman Deryk Engelland said, and that task will be tougher because of the first center-stage appearance of Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin.

Long considered one of the NHL's most feared scorers, Ovechkin never before played beyond the second round. He has scored 58 goals and 112 points in 116 career playoff games but the Capitals always fell short, usually in net or in nerves, and he was barraged by criticism for not strapping them to his broad back and lifting them to the next level. That has changed. He has 12 goals and 22 points in 19 games this spring in addition to being an all-in physical force and leader. "I sense a freedom. I sense a guy that's very focused, a guy that's on a little bit of a mission, and it's good," Washington coach Barry Trotz said Sunday during media day festivities.

Ovechkin, 32, said he hasn't put more pressure on himself than in the past. A stronger supporting cast allows for that. "I think he's fit in great with everybody this year. I think that's he's just evolved," dynamic defenseman John Carlson said. "He's always evolved. He's always gotten better, in my mind, and worked harder and wanted to succeed more than any other year and this year, whether it's a realization from him or him putting the work in, the results are finally coming."

Finally.

"When the playoffs start, I start enjoying it," Ovechkin said. "You know, we want to be here. We work so hard all year. I don't think nobody believes in us and nobody believes in Vegas, and we're right now in the Stanley Cup Final, and we fight for a Cup. Come enjoy this moment. I think everybody enjoys it."

Vegas general manager George McPhee, who drafted Ovechkin (and about half of the current Capitals) during a 17-year tenure as Washington's general manager that ended in 2014, sees Ovechkin as the same player he chose No. 1 in 2004. "He works his tail off. He's a threat to score every night. He hits like a truck every night," McPhee said. "I think he's been an amazing player for that franchise and for this league."

It will be the job of Vegas' solid defense to deprive Ovechkin of time and space whenever possible, and Fleury's job to stop him when Ovechkin inevitably creates time and space. The Russian winger is a familiar sight for Fleury, a three-time Cup champion with Pittsburgh: In all three title runs Fleury's Penguins defeated Ovechkin's Capitals.

Like every NHL goalie, he knows Ovechkin loves to set up in the left faceoff circle, especially on the power play. Stopping him is another matter. "It's get over there and brace because you know it's coming," Fleury said of what he thinks when Ovechkin shoots. "It's one of the best shots in the league, right? He's been so good at it, scored so many goals from there. So just try to come out and try to get a piece of it."

Ovechkin returned the compliment. "He's a great goalie. He knows how to win. It's going to be tough," Ovechkin said. "It's going to be harder and be fun to play against him and against those guys. It's always a challenge to play against the best, and I can't wait."

No matter how this story unfolds, this matchup between the first-year Golden Knights and the newly clutch Capitals promises to be intriguing. "Two years ago I was walking around Ann Arbor kicking stones. I couldn't get a job," said McPhee, now a finalist for the general manager of the year award in a season that has been distinguished by his team and the Capitals defying expectations every step of the way.

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen

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