LAS VEGAS – Well, we’ve come to the end of our on-ice journey for another season. The Washington Capitals, a team everyone thought would win a Stanley Cup, then nobody thought would win a Stanley Cup, finally broke through.
It was wonderful to see. Alex Ovechkin will probably show up to training camp in the fall probably still carrying the Cup around. The Capitals were not the perfect team, but they were good enough at the right time to win. And it’s hard to argue that there was a group of players or a fan base that deserved to win it more.
And, as usual, we learned a few things along the way. Or at least some of them were reaffirmed. Here are 10 of them:
1. Superior talent wins. Every single time: A team such as the Vegas Golden Knights can overachieve for 82 games. It can even do so for one, two, even three rounds of the playoffs. But when it comes to the final, the vast majority of the time talent wins over guile. And that’s what happened this year. It can be reversed very occasionally – the New Jersey Devils sweeping the Detroit Red Wings in 1995 comes to mind – but by the time the puck drops on the Stanley Cup final, the team with better talent wins. And like this series, it often isn’t very close.
2. The NHL hit a home run with Vegas: This is not a mirage. Vegas became a hockey town in record time and, while they won’t do this every year, have already established their footprint in this part of the world. These are not casual fans and they are not transients who are here for a weekend of gambling and partying with a hockey game on the side. They are locals who have been starved for professional sports and the NHL was wise gaining a beachhead here first.
3. Something has to be done about crosschecking: It’s not that the referees don’t see it. How could they not, since it happens about 100 times a game? It’s just that crosschecking has evolved into what the casual slash was before this season. Unless the NHL wants a bunch of Mike Bossy-type players retiring early with back injuries, it’s going to have to start calling what’s in the rulebook.
4. Patience wins championships: This was not the best team the Capitals have ever had. But it was the right team. Instead of looking at the playoff disappointments and tearing the team apart, the Capitals stuck with their core players and were finally rewarded with a championship. In reality, Alex Ovechkin took one fewer year to win his first championship than Steve Yzerman and look how things turned out. “Hopefully he wants to do it again,” said Capitals GM Brian McLellan. “Our younger guys are growing and our older guys have experience. I think (Ovechkin) gets it.”
5. Big trade deadline deals are overrated: Almost always it’s the small, under-the-radar deals that put a team over the top. The best deadline deal this season? Washington acquiring defenseman Michal Kempny for a third-round pick. The worst? Vegas acquiring Tomas Tatar and his huge contract for a first-, second- and third-round pick. The former was a key contributor to a Stanley Cup team, the latter was a healthy scratch most of the playoffs.
6. Momentum means nothing: This one was affirmed, actually. It’s pretty well established that momentum does not carry over from game to game. But this year it didn’t seem to mean squat during games often. The Golden Knights buried the Winnipeg Jets in the Western Conference final by killing Winnipeg’s momentum with quick-response goals. Then the Capitals did exactly the same thing to the Golden Knights in the final.
7. Home-ice advantage means nothing: Or at least it did in these playoffs. Why kill yourself in the regular season to gain home ice when the Capitals can win the Stanley Cup by going just 6-5 at home and 10-3 on the road and clinch every one of their four series victories away from the Capital One Center? Overall, home teams were just 40-44 at home in the playoffs.
8. The Seattle Kraken will not be as good in Year 1 as the Golden Knights were: Discuss amongst yourselves whether it’s good or bad for a sports league to have an expansion team get to the championship final, but it’s a certainty that the Original 31 will approach expansion far differently and more prudently this time. After seeing how Vegas played them like an accordion, teams will be more willing to simply submit their protected lists, part with a mid-range player and move on.
9. The NHL’s playoff system works: There has been considerable pressure from GMs to change the format and allow more teams in, but the league, to its credit, appears to remain steadfast. “We think from an interest standpoint, from a revenue standpoint, this current playoff format is better than any playoff format we’ve ever had before,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said when the final began. “At least from the league’s perspective there’s no reason to change it.” There was much consternation over the fact that the Nashville Predators and Jets, the top two teams in the regular season, met in the second round of the playoffs. But the point is, they met, giving us a series that was hugely entertaining and high in quality. And they played at a time when both teams were relatively fresh.
10. The Stanley Cup playoffs are the most unique event in sports: Again, a confirmation. The team that is left standing at the end does so with the satisfaction of knowing it won the most difficult championship to win in the sporting world. It took the Capitals 106 games to prove they are the best team in the NHL in 2017-18 and they earned every sip they’ll take from the Stanley Cup.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.