After Wednesday night’s Game 7 victory by the Capitals, the stage is set for the 2018 Stanley Cup final, and one of the major stories heading into the series is going to be quite obvious: an upstart, expansion team in the Vegas Golden Knights against a Washington group that has historically underachieved but is looking to shake that tag.
Beyond that, though, the clash between the Capitals and Golden Knights will feature two teams without a single Stanley Cup in their franchise’s history, two rosters with a combined total of two Stanley Cup rings and two organizations who will be seeking their first-ever win in the Stanley Cup final. Yes, that’s right: Washington, like Vegas, is still without a win in the Cup final. After all, this is only their second appearance in the final in franchise history, and the 1998 final saw the Capitals swept by the Detroit Red Wings.
But in a head-to-head battle between the two teams, there are a several storylines that are far juicier, and these are five we should keep an eye on as we prepare for the Stanley Cup final:
ONE DEMON DOWN, BUT CAPITALS SET TO FACE ANOTHER
For the Capitals, defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins in the post-season was paramount to some sort of playoff Everest. It was the one hill they couldn’t climb, trying and failing in painful fashion even in campaigns when it appeared everything favored Washington. This season, though, with Pittsburgh playing for a third straight Stanley Cup, the Capitals managed to slay the dragon and they celebrated in kind. That’s all good and well, too, but it turns out there are some vestiges of that same dragon in their Stanley Cup final opponent.
Twice in the post-season meetings between the Capitals and Penguins, Pittsburgh was backstopped by Marc-Andre Fleury, and both of those series featured painful Game 7 defeats for Washington. That was especially true just last season when the Capitals fired 29 shots on Fleury in Game 7 of the second round but were blanked by the then-Penguins keeper. That said, Fleury’s history against the Capitals, series victories aside, isn’t all that sparkling. In 14 playoff games against Washington, Fleury has an 8-6 record with a .902 save percentage and 2.80 goals-against average. Trouble is, this year's version of Fleury is playing like a man possessed, especially in the playoffs. He boasts a .947 SP and 1.68 GAA with four shutouts in 15 games. So, it appears the Capitals might have one last hill to climb before they can truly claim that so-called Penguins curse is over.
GOLDEN KNIGHTS PLAYING WITH HOUSE MONEY
It wouldn’t be fair to say the Golden Knights entered this campaign with no expectations, but we can assume that most expectations were of the lower variety, including chasing a draft lottery pick and selling off pending free agents at the deadline. As it turns out, though, Vegas was a division winner, a buyer at the deadline and they’ve shocked the hockey world by not only escaping the Pacific but capturing the Western Conference crown after defeating the Winnipeg Jets. But here’s the thing: the low expectations from the beginning of the season puts Vegas in the position to be playing without even an ounce of added pressure. Win or lose, this has been an unthinkably excellent season from the expansion franchise.
There’s a benefit to that looseness, too, and you get the sense the players feel it. Not once all post-season have the Golden Knights appeared tight in the playoffs, and the conference final against the Jets showed the resilient side of this Vegas group, who went down 1-0 in the series on the road before rattling off four straight victories. The Golden Knights aren’t going to have any past demons to shake, either, unlike the Capitals, who have a history of playoff shortcomings that will inevitably be brought up should they fall behind at any point in the series.
SCHMIDT SQUARES OFF AGAINST HIS FORMER TEAM
Schmidt, 26, was no more than a fifth or sixth defenseman in Washington last season, but this campaign in Vegas he saw his average ice time shoot up by nearly seven minutes per game and he flourished, scoring a career-best five goals and 36 points in 76 games. He’s continued that production in the playoffs, too, with two goals and six points, and his skating ability has been on full display. Slowing him down once he got going was difficult enough for a deep and well-structured defensive team such as Winnipeg, so it could be a chore for Washington, too.
But here’s what the Capitals should be most worried about: each Vegas series this post-season has been decided by a player with a connection to the opponent. In Round 1, it was Kings castoff Brayden McNabb who scored the game-winner to eliminate Los Angeles. In Round 2, Ryan Carpenter got an assist on the goal that buried the San Jose Sharks for good. And Winnipeg native Ryan Reaves scored the series-deciding goal against the Jets. So, yeah, keep your eye on Schmidt, particularly if Vegas is one win away from the Cup.
McPHEE’S STAMP ALL OVER CUP WINNER
Obviously, Golden Knights GM George McPhee, the presumptive winner of the NHL’s GM of the Year Award this season, has made his mark in Vegas. At the time of the expansion draft, McPhee and his staff were lambasted for their selections, but it appears he built these Golden Knights with a specific playing style in mind, and his ability to use trades to Vegas’ advantage has helped produce a franchise that has earned a Stanley Cup final appearance in its very first season. But, really, win or lose in the final, McPhee’s stamp is going to be all over the Stanley Cup thanks to his nearly two-decade stint as GM of the Capitals.
Though he was out of that post by April 2014, many of McPhee’s decisions during his time in Washington have resulted in this run. Case in point, more than half of the Capitals' roster that has seen action in this post-season were brought aboard during McPhee’s tenure. That of course includes the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and John Carlson, but McPhee is also responsible for much of the depth in Washington, too. He drafted Chandler Stephenson, Andre Burakovsky and Christian Djoos, and Jay Beagle was a McPhee signing. Either fan base could be chanting “Thank you, George” by the time the Cup is handed out.
WILL FINAL BERTH ALTER BARRY TROTZ’S FUTURE?
Ahead of the post-season, it seemed a near certainty that Barry Trotz’s time in Washington was coming to a close. All signs pointed to it. His contract is set to expire at the end of the season, he has no extension in place, the Capitals appear to be entering a period of transition despite another division crown and there was that bit of Zapruder-esque lip reading that went on after the first round that seemed to suggest Trotz himself knew he was on borrowed time. Now with an Eastern Conference championship and a berth to the Stanley Cup final under his belt, though, one has to wonder what happens next for Trotz.
We have, of course, seen coaches fired in the past despite repeated trips to the conference final and we have seen coaches end up on the hot seat shortly after winning the Stanley Cup. What we haven’t seen in some time, however, is a coach canned immediately after winning the conference crown or Stanley Cup. Matter of fact, we’d have to go all the way back to the 1994 Stanley Cup final, when the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup, to find the last instance of a coach jetting after a championship. In that instance, though, Mike Keenan resigned from his post as Rangers coach. He wasn’t fired.
That leaves one to wonder what happens with Trotz now. Can the Capitals really justify moving on from him after their first berth in the final in 20 years? And if Washington wins the Stanley Cup, is there any way Trotz is sent packing?
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