Desert Of Dreams – When Washington last visited the Stanley Cup final against Detroit in 1998, it could not have foreseen a 20-year wait for a return visit. And it certainly could not have foreseen that its eventual return would come against the Vegas Golden Knights.
When the Detroit Red Wings swept aside the Capitals in four straight games back in 1998, the NHL was still a 26-team circuit. Nashville entered the league the following fall, and Atlanta (now Winnipeg) came in a year after that. Columbus and Minnesota began their respective NHL existences in 2000-01, and the NHL finally ended a period of rapid expansion growth in the 1990s, going 17 years before opening its doors to admit the Vegas team in 2017-18.
Back in the 1997-98 season while the Caps were on their first ever run to the Cup final, minor league hockey was being played in Vegas. The Las Vegas Thunder was in the fifth season of a six-year run in the now-defunct International League, a circuit that went belly up in 2001 after more than five decades as a feeder to the NHL. The Thunder was a Phoenix Coyotes affiliate in those days, and its roster and staff was dotted with players who were or would be connected to the Caps in some fashion.
Start behind the bench where former Caps goalie Clint Malarchuk spent the ’97-98 season serving as both an assistant and a head coach of the Thunder. Petr Nedved, whose game-winning goal late in quadruple overtime of a 1996 playoff game against Washington was another in a series of knives to the heart of Caps fans, suited up for three Thunder games in ’97-98 while embroiled in a contract dispute with the Penguins.
Future NHL defenseman Radoslav Suchy skated for the Thunder that season, too. Now 42, Suchy is still playing professionally in his native Slovakia. In 1997-98, he was getting his first taste of North American pro hockey. His 451-game NHL career would begin in 1999-00, and he’s most noteworthy in District hockey lore as being the recipient of Alex Ovechkin’s first career NHL hit. Suchy was with the Blue Jackets when Ovechkin ran him into the boards behind the Columbus goal on Oct. 5, 2005, breaking the glass and causing a stoppage of play less than a minute into the Caps captain’s first NHL shift.
Former Caps first-rounder John Slaney – the ninth overall choice in the 1990 NHL Entry Draft – played a handful of games in Vegas that season, in the midst of a nomadic career in which he donned the sweaters of seven different NHL and eight different AHL or IHL teams.
And finally, speaking of nomadic careers, Mel “The Mangler” Angelstad got into three games with the ’97-98 Thunder, because of course he did. Angelstad also played for the Thunder Bay Thunder Hawks, the Thunder Bay Senators and the Thunder Bay Thunder Cats, all of the Colonial Hockey League.
Sporting sweater No. 69 for the blue, black and bronze-clad Capitals in the final two games of the forgettable 2003-04 season, Angelstad’s NHL career consists of those two contests with the Caps when he was a 32-year-old brawler with most of his bouts behind him. Angelstad’s last NHL game was also the last NHL game the Caps played without Ovechkin.
Show You How – While the Caps and Golden Knights have very little in the way of history against one another, Washington did make a very valuable visit to Vegas just ahead of Christmas when it faced the Golden Knights for the first time.
Vegas jumped all over the Caps with three goals in the first 15 minutes, and that was all the scoring for the entire game. But Washington got a heavy dose of the Vegas operating procedure: Amp up the crowd and the noise with a fun and compelling pregame show, then overwhelm the visitors with speed and forechecking heat early in the game, before they can even find their legs.
“Great barn. Great barn, the fans are into it,” said Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen after that Dec. 23 loss here. “Nice facility. They’ve got an exciting team that they should be proud of, and it seems like the people here are excited to have a hockey team in town. That wasn’t a fun night for us, but I could see how it was a fun night for Vegas fans.”
The game ops folks put on an entertaining show, as you’d expect from the entertainment capital of the world. But it is not cloying, either. There are no artificial prompts for cheering or noise or clapping, and there was plenty of buzz and organic energy in the building without it.
“It was great,” said Caps goaltender Braden Holtby. “Probably one of the best in the league, for sure. “Great energy and great game ops and everything like that. It’s good for the game. Hockey can be the most entertaining sport if teams do it right, and they do it right. And on this pedestal in Vegas, with how many people in the world come here, it’s great for our sport.”
Vegas rolled to a 29-10-2 home ice record during the regular season, and its 6-1 home ice record is the best of any team in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs.
“I’d say besides our home ice,” says Washington right wing Tom Wilson, “besides our own building, it’s the best road experience. It’s tremendous for the game. They’ve done an amazing job. You don’t want to sugar coat it, but they’ve done an amazing job. They sell out, they’re loud, the show [they put on] before [games], and the support the city has shown, it’s great for the game of hockey and a lot of fun to be a part of. I’m only imagining they’re going to amp it up to the max here.”
Future Starts Slow – Both teams have been cooling their collective heels for a while since they last suited up in anger. Vegas finished the Western Conference series with Winnipeg eight days ago, and Washington has been idle for five days since closing out the Lightning in Tampa on Wednesday. Both teams are champing at the bit and ready to get started.
“Obviously they’re a quick start team, in this building especially,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz, referring to the Golden Knights. “I don’t think they’ve trailed too many minutes here all year. They come out and they swarm you here in the first five or 10 minutes, and you’ve got to survive that.
“It seems for us, we’ve been playing every second day for the last couple of months here, and it seems like forever when you get a couple of days off. I think our guys are fine. We took a couple of days off and had a couple of practices, we traveled out here, and we’re going to play today. We think we’ll be ready. I think the excitement of this situation that we’re in and this opportunity that we have, both teams are going to be ready.”
The last time the Caps went five days between games was four months ago, in the midst of the NHL’s All-Star break. They’ll do their best to get from zero to 100 mph when the puck drops for Game 1 tonight.
“We’re aware that they’re going to play hard, they’re going to skate, they’re going to finish their checks, they’re going to be hard on pucks and that’s what’s expected at this time of year. So it’s nothing we haven’t dealt with. They’re a good hockey team, there are only two left. We’re going to try and dictate the pace from our end.”
In The Nets – Holtby enters Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final series with a streak of 159 minutes and 27 seconds of shutout hockey. He authored shutouts in Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference final series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Holtby is 12-6 with a 2.04 GAA and a .924 save pct. in the 2018 playoffs, and he is 12-5 as a starter. Holtby’s .935 even-strength save pct. in the playoffs is second only to Vegas’ Marc-Andre Fleury (.956!) among all goalies with at least five appearances in the playoffs this spring.
That brings us to Fleury, who is in the Cup final for the third straight spring and who is seeking his fourth career Stanley Cup championship ring. Twice in his career – including 2017 – Fleury backstopped the Penguins past the Capitals in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. There are some who are advancing the narrative that Fleury is in the Caps’ collective heads, and that he has dominated them over the years in the playoffs and the regular season, but that’s not exactly the case.
Fleury won each of his first seven career regular season starts against Washington, and he owns a 22-12-4 record with four shutouts, a 2.54 GAA and a .914 save pct. against the Caps. Essentially, he has been a .500 goalkeeper against the Caps since reeling off those seven straight victories against Washington early in his career, and the Caps have reached him for three or more goals in 20 of his 38 career appearances against Fleury in the regular season.
In the playoffs, Fleury is 8-6 lifetime against the Caps, and his 2.80 GAA and .902 save pct. in those 14 contests are hardly daunting qualitative figures. Where he really stands out is in the 2018 playoffs. In addition to his 12-3 record, Fleury has four shutouts, a 1.68 GAA and a .947 save pct., leading the league in those categories and heading into the final as a frontrunner for the Conn Smythe Trophy.
“If we can get to their goalie,” says Caps defenseman John Carlson, “that’s obviously been their backbone and their MVP throughout these playoffs and the regular season towards the end, too, I’m sure. The earlier we can get to him and force them into some mistakes, changing the way that they play, I think it all starts with him. They have been rolling teams, starting off hot and just playing a simple game and working hard after that. I think the starts – like they have been all along – will be real important in getting to Fleury if we can.”
It will be important, and the Caps are more than aware.
“I’ll say this: He is a good goalie,” says Trotz of Fleury. “So was [Columbus’ Sergei] Bobrovsky. So were all the other guys – [Pittsburgh’s Matt] Murray – those guys were all good goalies, and Marc-Andre is a good goalie as well. And we’ll have a plan.”
All Lined Up – Here is how we expect the Caps and the Golden Knights to look when they take the ice for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final series on Monday night at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas:
8-Ovechkin, 92-Kuznetsov, 43-Wilson
13-Vrana, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
65-Burakovsky, 20-Eller, 10-Connolly
18-Stephenson, 83-Beagle, 25-Smith-Pelly
81-Marchessault, 71-Karlsson, 19-Smith
89-Tuch, 56-Haula, 18-Neal
57-Perron, 21-Eakin, 40-Carpenter
92-Nosek, 41-Bellemare, 75-Reaves
84-Grabovski (post-concussion syndrome)