If it was possible to cheer for both teams to win the Stanley Cup, the 2018 final would be the perfect opportunity as both the Golden Knights and Capitals are full of great players and great people who are deserving of playoff glory.
I certainly can’t lay claim to it, but there’s a pretty good joke going around about the Stanley Cup final that goes something like this: Hey, this year’s final will be played by a team based in a city renowned for its greed, debauchery, corruption and dishonesty. And the other city is Las Vegas.
Heh-heh. Good one, eh? With the final still more than four days away, we’re off to a great start. Truth is, this year’s Stanley Cup final between the Vegas Golden Knights and Washington Capitals, aside from having the potential to be a classic on the ice, is rife with incredible story lines and intriguing possibilities. You have one franchise that is driven by one of the most dynamic superstars of his generation that has chronically underachieved and looking for its first-ever Stanley Cup title. And on the other side, you have one of the most unlikely tales in sports history, one that is right there with the Miracle On Ice and Leicester City winning the Premier League soccer title two years ago.
Perhaps its only fitting that the first new ring of the Stanley Cup, the one that is added this year and will knock the likes of Gordie Howe and Rocket Richard off the venerable chalice, will be occupied by a first-time Cup champion. The Pittsburgh Penguins going for three straight or the Winnipeg Jets trying to end Canada’s quarter-century Cup drought would have been great, too, but this is off the charts.
All of which inspires the following question: Is it possible to cheer for both teams to win the Stanley Cup in 2018? Because any way you look at it, there are no black hats here. Both organizations are chock full of very good people, consummate professionals and players for whom it’s easy to root.
Let’s start with the general managers – George McPhee of the Golden Knights and Brian MacLellan of the Capitals. Both are engaging, warm and hard-working men who have devoted their careers to a game they love. But it goes so much deeper than that. Both were born in 1959 in Guelph, Ont., and have been playing together since they were little kids. They won a Centennial Cup championship, emblematic of Jr. A hockey supremacy, together with the Guelph Holody Platers in 1978, then played four years together at Bowling Green State University under the late Ron Mason, the dean of U.S. college coaches. Two of their teammates in their freshmen year were Ken Morrow and Mark Wells, two players who would go on to win an Olympic gold medal in 1980 before embarking on NHL careers. McPhee hired MacLellan when he was GM in Washington and MacLellan replaced McPhee when he was fired. Both have had equal parts in the Capitals team that will be competing for the Stanley Cup.
Then let’s move on to Alex Ovechkin, a player who always took full responsibility for his team’s lack of playoff success, even when it wasn’t warranted. How good is it to see Ovechkin not winning a gold medal in the World Championship this spring? Dale Hawerchuk had Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers standing between him and the ultimate glory when he played for the Winnipeg Jets. For Ovechkin, it has been Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team the Capitals finally vanquished this season. Ovechkin is as driven and focused as he has ever been, but has come to the point in his career where he doesn’t have to be the only cog in the machine and it has allowed him to play a much looser and more-rounded game. And he’s also one heck of a guy.
Speaking of good people, they don’t get much better than Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who may have already won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP regardless of who wins the series. Last year during Pittsburgh’s run to the Stanley Cup, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford called Fleury the best teammate in the history of sports and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who has played with him to disagree. Equal parts impish and playful, Fleury also happens to be playing some of the best hockey of his career.
And just about every guy on the Vegas roster, from the unappreciated Jonathan Marchessault to the unheralded William Karlsson to defenseman Nate Schmidt, who pukes rainbows out of his mouth, is swell. And on the other side, well, it’s literally impossible to have anything derogatory to say about Nicklas Backstrom. Goalie Brayden Holtby is another player who has exorcised his playoff demons and Barry Trotz has been a very good coach in the NHL for a long, long time.
And of course, how could you not cheer for the people of Las Vegas, whose introduction into the NHL coincided with an unspeakable tragedy that took 58 people. We can only imagine that those who died would probably be just as excited about this team as we are, but they were deprived the chance to fall in love with the Knights because of the acts of a gunman. The way the Golden Knights reacted to the tragedy should serve as a template we can only pray that no team ever has to use, ever again.
So let’s get this thing started. Now all of you who don’t have a dog in this fight have to do is decide which of these two eminently likeable teams you like more.
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