Washington forward Alexander Ovechkin had to wait 13 NHL seasons to make his first appearance in the Stanley Cup Final. The Vegas Golden Knights had to wait about 13 minutes.
A first-time Stanley Cup champion will be crowned in June. Ovechkin’s Capitals return to the Cup Final for the first time since they were swept by Detroit in 1998, and the Golden Knights go for hockey’s biggest prize in their first season. Both teams exceeded expectations. The Capitals retooled after another early playoff exit last spring and didn’t finish first overall as they had the previous two seasons, but they overcame a slow start against Columbus and slayed longtime nemesis Pittsburgh. The Golden Knights, projected to be a bottom-of-the-barrel expansion team, harnessed their speed and work ethic and the goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury to win the Pacific Division. They then prevailed against the different styles they faced from the Kings, San Jose Sharks and Winnipeg Jets.
The Capitals and Golden Knights have many links: Vegas general manager George McPhee was the Capitals’ GM for 17 years and used the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2004 to select Ovechkin, who this season surpassed 600 goals and 1,000 NHL games; McPhee and his successor in Washington, Brian MacLellan, were teammates in junior hockey, at Bowling Green State and with the New York Rangers; the 1974-75 Capitals set many records for expansion-team futility, while the Golden Knights set records for first-year excellence.
Here’s how they measure up:
VEGAS 51-24-7, 109 points
Round 1: Def. Kings 4-0.
Round 2: Def. San Jose 4-2.
Round 3: Def. Winnipeg 4-1.
WASHINGTON 49-26-7, 105
Round 1: Def. Columbus 4-2.
Round 2: Def. Pittsburgh 4-2.
Round 3: Def. Tampa Bay 4-3.
Power play: Season — Golden Knights 21.4% (11th); Capitals 22.5% (7th). Playoffs — Golden Knights 17.6% (10th); Capitals 28.8% (2nd).
Penalty killing: Season — Golden Knights 81.4% (10th); Capitals 80.3% (15th). Playoffs — Golden Knights 82.5% (4th); Capitals 75.4% (10th).
Top scorers: Season—Golden Knights, William Karlsson 43-35—78; Capitals, Ovechkin 49-38—87. Playoffs—Golden Knights, Jonathan Marchessault 8-10—18; Capitals, Evgeny Kuznetsov 11-13—24.
Unburdened by the pressure of the No. 1 ranking, the Capitals have been focused and purposeful. Ovechkin (12 goals, 22 points) carried them against Tampa Bay, supported by playoff scoring leader Kuznetsov. Goaltender Braden Holtby wasn’t the first-round starter but seized the job and shut out the Lightning over the last 159 minutes and 27 seconds of the East final. John Carlson leads defensemen in playoff scoring with three goals and 16 points, including 10 points on Washington’s fearsome power play, and he leads the Caps with an average ice time of 25:59. They’re deep — they’ve scored an average of 3.47 goals per game and allowed 2.47— and they can be physical, potentially an asset. But first, they’ll have to catch the speedy Golden Knights.
Fleury’s calmness under duress and sunny personality set the tone for a team that likes to see itself as a merry band of misfits but is much better than that. He’s pursuing his third straight Cup title and fourth of his career, and his 1.68 goals-against average and .947 save percentage put him atop Conn Smythe (MVP) lists. While with Pittsburgh last season, he made 29 saves to shut out the Capitals in Game 7 of the second round; is he still in their heads? The Golden Knights’ top line of Marchessault, Karlsson and Reilly Smith is fast and skillful, second-line winger James Neal brings Cup Final experience from last season with Nashville, and their fourth line brings energy. Their defensemen are mobile but sometimes become too adventurous offensively.
Pick: The expansion Golden Knights will live the dream. Vegas in seven.