A shade more than 43 years after their own first NHL season ended in ignominy, the Washington Capitals are in the Stanley Cup final against the Vegas Golden Knights, the most successful first-year expansion team in North American major league sports history.
The 1974-75 Capitals won eight of their 80 games (8-67-5) and lost 37 straight road games before finally earning their first points on the road in late March, in their 38
throad game of the season. Vegas needed only nine games to match Washington’s first-year win total in 2017-18, its own first season in the NHL. The Golden Knights won the Pacific Division by eight points and they’ve cruised to the Cup final with an impressive 12-3 record during their first ever playoff voyage.
It’s the sixth final in Stanley Cup history in which both teams will be vying for their first-ever Stanley Cup championship. The last time it happened was 11 years ago when Anaheim prevailed over Ottawa. Either Washington or Vegas will become the 19
thof the league’s 31 teams to hoist the Stanley Cup.
"We want to be here," says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin. "We work so hard all year. I don't think nobody believes in us and nobody believes in Vegas, and we're right now in the
Stanley Cup final, and we fight for a Cup. Come enjoy this moment. I think everybody enjoys it. You guys enjoy it. Fans enjoy it. We're going to play hockey. You guys are going to be on the beach, watch the hockey games with cocktails, and come here and watch the game, and it's going to be fun for you guys."
Both Vegas and Washington got to this point by clinching each of their previous three series with road victories, marking the first time ever that two teams reached the Cup final in that fashion in the same year.
“I think it’s great for the NHL and it’s great for both franchises,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “We want our sport to continue to grow. We have one of the biggest faces on the planet in Alex, and they’re the new kid on the block, which is a fantastic story. You’ve got the more traditional hockey fans and then you’ve got the people who are becoming new hockey fans, and that’s fantastic, that’s what you want.
“I think there are great storylines on both sides and we talk about the definition of what teams are, and you probably have a total definition of two teams that are real teams. They’ve got their roles defined, they’re playing as a unit, and I think that’s why they’re both here.”
Game 1 of this year’s Stanley Cup final series comes on the 44
thanniversary of the day the Caps conducted their first ever amateur draft, selecting defenseman Greg Joly with the first overall pick on May 28, 1974. Joly skated in 44 games as a teenaged rookie for the ’74-75 Capitals, one of four players from Washington’s first amateur draft who were pressed into NHL duty in the team’s first season in the league.
Vegas made three first-round choices in the 2017 NHL Draft, but the Golden Knights were able to assemble a strong enough roster that none of its original draftees played a single game for the team in its first season. With longtime Caps general manager George McPhee pulling the personnel strings as the first GM in Golden Knights history, and with Gerard Gallant behind the bench, the Vegas team came together quickly and didn’t deal with much of the adversity that characterized the early years of the NHL expansion teams that came before them.
Take the Capitals, for example.
The Caps were born into a bloated NHL in 1974-75, joining the league along with the Kansas City Scouts. The Caps and Scouts brought the league’s swiftly growing ranks to 18 teams. Less than a decade earlier, the NHL was a six-team outfit. It tripled in size in eight years, and was up against the rival World Hockey Association, born in 1972 as a 12-team major league.
The WHA took the ice for the 1974-75 season with 14 teams, meaning there were 32 “major league” hockey teams in operation in North America. Somewhat suddenly, there were more than 600 jobs available in major league hockey where there had been just over 100 less than a decade earlier. Europe was still a largely untapped market for hockey talent; of the 450 skaters who suited up for NHL duty in 1974-75, 406 were born in Canada and 30 hailed from the U.S.
The talent pool was severely diluted when Capitals GM Milt Schmidt and Scouts GM Sid Abel set about scouring the rosters of the existing 16 NHL clubs for whatever vestiges of talent they could find for the June expansion draft.
“It’s not fair,” Schmidt was quoted as saying in the June 11, 1974 edition of
The New York Times. “We paid 6-million dollars to join the league and look how little the other teams have left for us.”
The 16 existing clubs were each permitted to protect 15 players. Players whose first pro season was 1973-74 were deemed draft exempt, and existing clubs were permitted to pull back a player each time they lost one. Each existing club would lose three players. So in effect, the Capitals were drafting the 16
thbest players from the existing clubs, and most of those existing clubs were facing an expansion draft for the third time in five years.
Of the 24 players Washington chose in the expansion draft, only three never played for the Capitals in a regular season NHL game. But only nine of the 24 played for Washington beyond the team’s first dismal season in the league, and only three – goaltender Ron Low and defensemen Yvon Labre and Gord Smith – appeared in as many as 75 games as a member of the Capitals.
That, in a nutshell, is why the Capitals were the worst first-year expansion team in North American pro sports history. It’s also why it took them eight seasons to make the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time, and indirectly, it’s one of the reasons the league relaxed the expansion draft rules for the Vegas entry last summer.
There were roughly 500 million additional reasons for Vegas to have an easier go of things, too. The Golden Knights paid a much, much higher franchise fee to enter the Original 31, and McPhee played those rules and some of the league’s other GMs like a harp, building easily the best expansion team in North American pro sports history. The Golden Knights are aiming to become the first NHL team to win the Stanley Cup since the Toronto Arenas did so a century ago, in 1917-18. In the case of the Arenas, one of the four teams in the circuit that season was going to have that distinction; it was the first season of the NHL’s existence.
And here we are, ready to witness a Stanley Cup final series between the league’s worst ever expansion team and its best ever expansion team.
The Caps got here with a late-season surge in which they won 12 of their last 15 games – including five straight on the road – to land their third straight Metropolitan Division title and home ice advantage for the first two rounds of the playoffs. That home ice advantage didn’t help early on; the Caps lost the first two games of their opening-round series with Columbus, losing both in overtime.
Washington needed a Lars Eller goal in double-overtime of Game 3 of that series with the Blue Jackets to get right; that started a four-game winning streak that put Columbus in the rear view and sent the Caps into the second round against a familiar foe, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Playing without Tom Wilson (suspension) and Nicklas Backstrom (upper body injury), the Caps snapped a 2-2 deadlock in that series by winning Games 5 and 6 to eliminate the Penguins and propel Washington into the Eastern Conference final for the first time in two decades.
The Tampa Bay Lightning – the best team in the Eastern Conference during the regular season – loomed as Washington’s next opponent. After winning the first two games of that series on the road, the Caps’ idyllic playoff run was imperiled with a three-game losing streak that left them needing two straight wins over the Bolts in Games 6 and 7.
Not to worry, kids. Braden Holtby authored a pair of shutouts of the league’s highest scoring regular season team, vaulting the Caps back to the final and giving them just their second crack ever at claiming hockey’s holy grail, the Stanley Cup.
“I think the No. 1 thing is how many guys we have engaged,” says caps right wing T. J. Oshie. “You know, there were a couple of games where we didn’t have our best and not everyone was there. But for the most part, we’ve got everyone all in. We’ve got everyone doing all of the little things right so the big things can follow, and that’s wins. That’s guys blocking shots, countless times wingers getting hammered on the walls but getting the puck out at the blueline, or guys getting the puck in and taking hits. So there have been a lot of sacrifices, and it hasn’t been by one or two guys. It’s been everyone. Our team definitely has strength in numbers with our depth. All of the wins we have, it’s because of the full team being in.”
It hasn’t mattered much where Washington plays this spring; it has actually fared better on the road (8-2) than at home (4-5). The Caps have established a franchise record for most road wins in one playoff year this spring, and they’re two road victories shy of matching the NHL record (10).
“I feel like we spend more time together on the road and that’s got to help us,” says Caps center Evgeny Kuznetsov. “At this time, your family wants to get a piece of you, your friends want to get a piece of you, everyone wants to get a piece of you. But when you’re on the road, you’re really by yourself and you just focus on the team lifestyle. You have some dinner, you get free time in the lounge and you play some video games with the boys and you have fun. At the same time, you don’t watch the TV and all the news. You don’t really pay attention to what’s happening around you, you just do it.”
Washington may have had better teams on paper in previous seasons, but the games aren’t played on paper. One of several reasons for the Caps’ success in the playoffs – and in the final quarter of the season – is the team’s collective adherence to the system and the game plan on a given night.
“I think when you get to this time of year,” says Caps defenseman Brooks Orpik, “you’ve got to put all of your personal goals or agendas aside, and you’ve really got to buy into the team’s system and the game plan that is presented to you. You always have more success that way. This year, more than any year I’ve been here this is probably the most buy in that I’ve seen out of the group collectively. You need a little luck along the way, and we’ve had some luck. But I think we’ve earned most of the luck that we’ve gotten.”
“I think it’s been big,” says Holtby. “It goes both ways, obviously. We have faith in [the coaching staff] that they’re going to be finding the right ways to do things, and if a player or anyone has an idea, they’re open to everything. So we’re completely on one page there. I think even as he playoffs have gone on, they’ve gotten more and more confident in the fact that our group is soaking in the information and executing it. And that’s working well for us.”
As for the Golden Knights, virtually everything has been working well for them. After sailing through the regular season with easily the best record by an expansion team ever, they’ve reached the final in just 15 games, winning 12 of them, including four straight in the first and third rounds.
They’ve been getting great goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury, who looms as a serious candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy, and their top forward line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith has paced the Vegas attack. But the Golden Knights have gotten contributions right up and down their lineup throughout the season and the playoffs, just as the Capitals have.
McPhee cobbled the Knights together in last June’s expansion draft, and he team that came together for the first time at training camp last September is now playing on the game’s biggest stage and competing for its biggest prize less than a year later.
“It was the first expansion draft in a salary cap era,” says McPhee, “and that created possibilities that we may not have anticipated early on because people either had expansion stress, too many players, and not being able to protect them all, or account stress – they had money issues.
So in addition to the rules being more favorable, there were teams that were looking to get out of certain deals, and we could get better players or better draft picks if we could play ball with them.
“My fear initially was that there would be a massive redistribution of players right before the expansion draft. The teams would get through the playoffs and everything else and deal with other teams and move people around. What we were looking at might not be there, but we were able to get in front of that a little bit and do some deals and sort of close down the market. We did the very best to try to find those unknown surprises, get a younger team, a player that may develop into names you'll recognize now but didn't then.
“You know, we wanted to be good. We didn't want to be a doormat. We didn't want to be an embarrassment. We wanted this to work. The league needed it to work. We needed it to work. This community needed it to work. This community's got this great identity as being an entertainment town, but it has another identity now, and it's a great -- it's a fantastic sports town. It is amazing, the support that this team has gotten on the ice, off the ice.”
The Caps will try to get a handle on how the Golden Knights play and what they’re all about. While there is lack of familiarity with the Vegas team, the Caps have plenty of experienced playing against the Golden Knights’ players, and there are some similarities between the Vegas style and that of other clubs around the league.
“They’re obviously better, but I think they play a lot like Columbus,” says Caps defenseman John Carlson of the Knights. “It’s full pressure all the time, they work real hard. Every [scoring] chance they get they get in transition, and the fourth and fifth guy on [defense] are always in the attack. That’s just who they are, that’s what’s made them get to this point and it’s great hockey. But yeah, they remind me a lot of [the Blue Jackets]. So that puts the onus on us to take care of the puck. The quicker we can get it out of our zone and into their zone the better off we will be. Just watching some of their games, that’s their MO, to try to force you into turnovers and to put you on our heels. The more you can execute and turn it on them, that’s when teams have had success against them.”
Keeping emotions in check and playing with energy while playing smart and sticking to the system have been hallmarks of the Caps’ play to this point of the playoffs, and it will be even more important here in the final, with all the eyes of the hockey world now on the Capitals and the Golden Knights.
“I remember the first time I played in the final,” says Orpik, referring back to his days with the Penguins, “we played Detroit in 2008. We thought we would go in there and just run them out of the building. And before we knew it, we had lost the first two games and it seemed like the series had just started, and we never recovered from it. A lot of that is emotion-driven; you’re so excited to be there that all of a sudden you kind of get out of your game plan and start playing a different way than you had all year.
“That will be important. It’s a very fine line to enjoy the opportunity and the moment and the stage you’re on, but really realizing that once you get between the boards it’s the exact same game that you played in the first three rounds. It’s not different, there are just more people watching you.”
Nineteen games deep into their 2018 playoff run, the Caps are now focused purely on getting four more wins – one at a time, of course – and delivering the coveted Cup to the good people of the District and its surrounding areas. The fans are certainly hungry for it, but so are the players.
“Every time you win a round,” says Wilson, “you believe more and more in your group. It starts out you’re down 2-0 right away and you climb back into it, you win that series, and you just keep pushing forward. Every round you win, it gets harder but it gets easier. You want to keep going.
“When you’re in the first round, the Cup still seems fairly distant away. As you move forward, guys are getting more and more excited. Guys are getting a taste of it, and you get hungrier. It’s the climax coming up, and it’s going to be a crazy ride. It’s already history, having Vegas be in a Cup final. We’re going to go there and that city is going to be crazy and we’re going to be focused and hopefully get the job done, and then come back to the city we love in front of our home fans and enjoy that.”