The 2018 Stanley Cup Final was set last night when the Washington Capitals bested the Tampa Bay Lightning in game seven of the Eastern Conference Final to advance to the final round for the first time since 1998.
They will meet the upstart Vegas Golden Knights, a team that has never lost a playoff series. The first-year Knights defeated the Winnipeg Jets in four games to one to advance out of the Western Conference.
The Capitals are kind of a weird team this year in that they are not as good as they have been in recent years when they have been picked by many experts to win it all. They lost pieces such as the Devils’ own Marcus Johansson and replaced them with players such as former Devil Devante Smith-Pelly. With all due respect to Smith-Pelly, he is not the same kind of player that Johansson is. Washington has arguably been weaker this year than in past years, but have been performing in the playoffs when, in years past, they did not.
But the irony is that the Caps have been playing their best this playoff. They came back from being two down to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round to win four straight and the series. They finally got over the Pittsburgh hump by beating the Penguins in the second round. And, although they blew a two games to none lead (after winning both of the first games of the series on the road no less) in the conference final, they still managed to take game seven from the Lightning on Tampa’s home ice.
The Golden Knights have had an easier time of it. They plowed through the Los Angeles Kings and the San Jose Sharks in the first two rounds, two aging heavy teams that could not keep up with the youthful Knights’ speed. After dropping the first game of the West final in Winnipeg, they rebounded to take four straight from a very good Jets team.
The story of the playoffs for Vegas, though, has to be goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury has been lights out, putting the Knights on his shoulders and carrying them for most of the postseason. Vegas definitely has the edge between the pipes.
But the Caps have a motivated player of their own: captain Alex Ovechkin. He is very close to a Stanley Cup ring now and he is doing all that he can to shake the label of “choker.” The big Russian should give Fleury all that he can handle.
Then you have the factor of the crowds. Washington fans will be hungry for their first taste of the Stanley Cup Final since being swept by the Detroit Red Wings in 1998. This is also the first time in the Ovechkin era that the team has been this far in the playoffs. Add to that the team coming off of a huge game seven win in the Eastern final and the Capital One Arena crowd will be ready to make some noise.
Then there is Vegas. That building will be as noisy as it has been all season. This is uncharted territory, really. The last time an expansion team made the Stanley Cup FInal in its first season was 1968 when the St. Louis Blues did it. But there is a caveat there. The NHL put all of the six new expansion teams in a single division, so that an expansion team had to come out of that division to meet an Original Six team in the Final. The Blues were swept that year by the Montreal Canadiens. They were not on equal footing, that is for sure.
Prior to the Blues, you have to go back another 50 years, to the very founding year of the NHL, 1917-18, to find another first year team to challenge for the Cup. That year it was the Toronto Arenas, the team that would eventually become the Maple Leafs, that defeated Montreal.
The good thing for fans this time around, is that Vegas is not your average expansion team, as they have shown all season long. They were very shrewd in the Expansion Draft and during the season in making deals for players that could help them get to this point.
Yet another factor is time. The Final starts on Monday. Vegas will have had more than a week’s layoff while the Caps will have been idle for about three days. The series kicks off at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. How will the teams come out of their respective breaks? How much is too much of a layoff? How much rest is just right? Can the Knights last if Washington makes this a longer series, considering they have not played any really drawn out series yet?
The answers to these questions and more will begin to come to light on Monday evening when the Stanley Cup Final comes to the Silver State for the first time ever. Good luck to both teams!