May 28 vs. Vegas Golden Knights at T-Mobile Arena
Time: 8:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7 and FAN 106.7
Game 1, Stanley Cup final series.
Twenty years after their only previous journey to the Stanley Cup final, the Caps are back. While they faced – and ultimately fell to – a revered Original Six franchise in the Detroit Red Wings in 1998, this time around the Caps are facing a team that did not even exist at this time last year.
The Vegas Golden Knights were born last June, built from the ground up – by longtime Caps general manager George McPhee – with players from each of the league’s other 30 teams, and via the most liberal expansion draft rules in league history. The Golden Knights won the Pacific Division by a margin of eight points in their first season in the league, and they have rolled through three playoff rounds with an impressive 12-3 record. They’ll host the Capitals in the first two games of the Stanley Cup final, with Game 1 on Monday night at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
Vegas is 6-1 on its home ice sheet in the playoffs this spring while Washington owns an 8-2 record on the road in the postseason. The only game Vegas lost at home in this year’s playoffs was a double-overtime loss to San Jose in Game 2 of its second-round series. Both the Caps and the Golden Knights clinched all three of their previous series on the road in the 2018 playoffs, and this is the first time two such teams have ever met in the Cup final.
These two teams have met exactly twice in their history – on Dec. 23 of last year here in Vegas, and on Feb. 4 in Washington. The Golden Knights prevailed both times, winning 3-0 in Vegas and 4-3 in the District. Before that Dec. 23 game was 15 minutes old, Vegas roared out to a 3-0 lead, and that was it for the scoring in the game as Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury recorded his first shutout of the season at the Capitals’ expense.
The Caps definitely got a taste of what the league’s newest barn was like, and a healthy dose of the Golden Knights, too.
“It was crazy,” says Caps defenseman John Carlson, “and it was a little bit different for us, going to a new place for the first time. They’re obviously a good team, and these are all factors that matter wherever you go, but certainly they’ve earned that home ice advantage with their fans with the energy that they bring there. I don’t think it has any correlation to playoffs. Obviously they’ve been good in the playoffs, too, but we’re a lot different team now than we were when we went there.”
The Caps played that Dec. 23 game on short turnaround; puck drop came just 22 hours after their game in Arizona the night before, and the Caps had to fly all the way back to D.C. as soon as that Vegas game was over, getting a late start on their holiday break.
Vegas erased three one-goal Washington leads in the Feb. 4 rematch, and Alex Tuch gave the Golden Knights the win when he scored with just over five minutes remaining in the third period.
“We saw them twice,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “We saw them on the 23
rdof December after a back-to-back, and they jumped on us real early, and we lost the game probably in the first 10 minutes. I know we played the night before [in Arizona] and then we played the 5 o’clock game [in Vegas], and I think guys were more worried about trying to get back [for] Christmas. We were out on the west coast and we weren’t getting home until the 24
that 6 a.m. and the kids are going to be up and you’ve got some toys to build and put together. So it wasn’t a great trip for us in terms of that, and I don’t know if they saw our best game there or not. But it was eye opening.
“They’re a quick start team, especially in Vegas. And that building is absolutely insane in terms of noise and the fans that have just gone very passionate there for good reason. They maybe caught us a little bit off guard. I thought we had a good handle on them – knowing that they’re a quick start team – but they beat us. Then they came into our building and we had a real good game. They got a late goal – I think it was Alex Tuch who scored fairly late in the [third] period. They’re a good hockey team. They’re well rounded and they’re well coached, and they’ve done an excellent job. They’ve got good goaltending and their defense is very, very capable.”
Never before in league history have two teams faced off with so little prior history between them. Vegas is not the first first-year expansion team to reach the Cup final; the St. Louis Blues did so 50 years ago, facing the Montreal Canadiens in the final. But the Blues and Habs faced one another four times during the 1967-68 regular season.
What’s it going to be like for these two teams with little history with one another and no pent up animosity to go at it for the Stanley Cup?
“Obviously it’s unique,” says Caps goalie Braden Holtby. “No one has ever done it before, obviously. But there are a lot of players that we’ve played against a lot. [The Golden Knights] play a similar style to other teams, so it’s not anything crazy. They work hard.
“With them, I think it’s more going to be that ultimate focus on every minute and every play, because they’re a team that doesn’t let you off the hook at all. They’re forcing you at all times and the way to beat that is making sure that we’re focused and on the same page and playing as a unit out there, and not put too much emphasis on the fact that we haven’t played them that much, because they’ve only played us twice as well.”
What the two teams lack in on-ice familiarity can also be bridged with the study of video. Both coaching staffs have had several days now with which to comb through videos and to devise schemes designed to minimize the opposition’s best attributes.
“I don’t think it matters how much we’ve played them,” says Caps defenseman Brooks Orpik. “There is so much video out there, and these guys probably haven’t left that office the last couple of days. That will be no excuse for us.
“Vegas is in the same spot that we are. I can’t imagine that their coaches are doing any more work than our guys are. If anything, we’re overly prepared when it comes to opponents, and most of the time it’s just a matter of us going out and executing.”
Given the fact that so many former Caps hockey operations personnel – starting with McPhee – now ply their trades in Vegas, there is a great deal of familiarity between the two sides off the ice.
“It’s weird,” says Caps right wing Tom Wilson. “We’re not familiar with them, but there are a lot of familiarities throughout the organizations. With video now, there are really no secrets so you’re be able to get a pre-scout on them.
“They are what you see. They work really hard, they’ve got a lot of skill, they’ve got a great goalie and a pretty strong [defense] corps. So we’re not going to have a lot of time and space, we’re going to have to match their intensity and dictate the pace of play. At this point of the year, you expect that it’s going to be a battle.”
It will be a battle for sure. That’s the part that is certain. The Golden Knights may be a first year expansion team, but they’re comprised of players and coaches and management types who – like their Washington counterparts – have been pursuing this goal for years. Getting this far is a rare occurrence, and no one has any idea when they might be back again.
“I think it’s an amazing accomplishment to take that many new guys that haven’t had chemistry and a new coach and put it all together and have the run that they’ve had,” says Caps general manager Brian MacLellan, who will be facing his childhood pal and former boss McPhee. “I’m not sure how it went that way. And they’ve kind of evolved as the season has gone on from my discussions with them. They keep adjusting to higher expectations as the year went on. To get to the Final and to be a possible Cup winner, I think is an incredible story.”
It will be an incredible story no matter which team wins the Cup, because that’s almost always the case at this time of year as the last of the hockey is played for another season. Starting on Monday night at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, the Capitals and the Golden Knights will engage in that battle and continue those incredible stories. The rest of us will be watching, riveted, because this is what it’s all about.