By DAVID SHOALTS
Saturday, May 26, 2018
S TORONTO -- Even if the Vegas Golden Knights were not the first NHL expansion team to play in the Stanley Cup final in 50 years, this series would still be one of the most improbable in league history.
Every reporter covering this Cup final must be hoping it will go the full seven games, starting Monday night in Las Vegas, and not just because it means trips to Sin City. All of that time - the final would end June 13 if it goes the limit - will be needed just to chronicle all of the story lines between the Golden Knights and the Washington Capitals, who are both playing for their first Stanley Cup.
The following list just covers the major topics: The Golden Knights are the first expansion team to play in the Stanley Cup final since the St.
Louis Blues in 1968. But the Blues had the advantage of being placed in the same division as the other five expansion teams in the first post-Original Six season, guaranteeing one of them would make the final.
If there is a central character, it has to be George McPhee. The Golden Knights' president of hockey operations and general manager can say he is the architect of both teams. Before he put together the Golden Knights, McPhee was the Washington Capitals GM from 1997 to 2014 and drafted most of the team's current roster.
Capitals superstar Alexander Ovechkin finally made his first Cup final in his 13th NHL season and is playing a central role in his team's success. For years, his worth as a star was questioned in the wake of repeated playoff failures.
Golden Knights goaltender Marc-André Fleury is once again facing the team he defeated so often in the playoffs when he was with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
And Fleury is in his third consecutive Cup final after being rejected by the Penguins in favour of a younger player.
McPhee and his successor as Caps GM, Brian MacLellan, are lifelong friends who were born a few months apart in 1958 and grew up together in Guelph, Ont.
They were teammates on junior, college and NHL teams.
Caps head coach Barry Trotz, 55, is appearing in his first Cup final. He has been one of the most respected coaches in the NHL going back 20 years, but a lack of playoff success dogs him as well as his team.
Golden Knights head coach Gerard Gallant, 54, is also in his first championship final. He was fired in clumsy fashion by the Florida Panthers in November, 2016, but rallied similarly rejected players to work together to shock the hockey world.
The Golden Knights' players used their collective status as castoffs from other teams as motivation to become the best team in the NHL's Western Conference.
When the season started, of course, no one expected the Golden Knights to be where they are today. While it was clear they would be a competitive team because the NHL made more good players available to the team than were in the previous expansion era of the 1990s, and while McPhee was also able to leverage the salary cap to squeeze even more out of his fellow GMs, not too many people expected the team to be a playoff threat.
The Golden Knights were also in an uncertain hockey market as the first major professional team to land in the gambling and entertainment capital of Las Vegas.
But the combination of a terrible tragedy, a mass shooting just before the season started that took 58 lives, the team's heart-felt reaction to it and subsequent success created a strong bond between the city and the Golden Knights.
"What we've been dealing with in Vegas, everyone comes up and says, " 'Thank you. We're proud of this team, we're proud to be Las Vegans,' " McPhee told the NHL Network just after the Golden Knights knocked off the Winnipeg Jets to make the final.
However, McPhee wasn't quite ready to process the fact he would be facing his former team for the Stanley Cup: "I don't even want to deal with that. I want to enjoy this."
McPhee put together the framework of the current Capitals team. He drafted 14 of the 25 players to appear in this year's playoffs, including Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, Braden Holtby and Evgeny Kuznetsov. McPhee also brought his old friend and eventual successor, MacLellan, to the Capitals.
MacLellan and McPhee played and worked together all of their lives. They were teammates and Centennial Cup champions in the late 1970s on their native Guelph Holody Platers and then won league titles and made an appearance in the NCAA's Frozen Four with Bowling Green State University from 1978 to 1982. The pair even managed one season as teammates in the NHL with the 1985-86 New York Rangers, who lost the conference final to the Montreal Canadiens.
While there were some hard feelings when MacLellan succeeded McPhee as the Capitals GM after the latter was fired, the pair is at least communicating again. MacLellan told reporters on Friday he and McPhee have texted each other about how awkward this is.
The Capitals made their only other appearance in the Cup final in 1998 when McPhee was in his first season as GM. They were swept by the Detroit Red Wings, in keeping with the team's history of playoff futility that goes back to the 1980s. When McPhee's teams could not shake that postseason malaise, he was fired by Caps owner Ted Leonsis in 2014, giving him the same motivation this season as the players he brought to the Golden Knights.
"He's a misfit, too, just like us," Vegas defenceman Nate Schmidt, taken from the Caps in the expansion draft, said of McPhee. "I think that as much as you, at the beginning of the season, you revelled in the idea that you were given away or traded away, I think it's kind of morphed into a sense of belonging to this group.
I think he's in the same boat."
The Capitals have their own motivational talisman as well. No one wears it more prominently than Ovechkin and Backstrom, who are the only survivors of the crop of talented youngsters drafted by McPhee in his early years as GM.
When the Capitals could not get beyond the second round of the playoffs in the past decade, it was Ovechkin who bore most of the criticism followed by Backstrom, his playmaker since 2007.
That is why they shared a special embrace when the horn sounded in the Game 7 win earlier this week over the Tampa Bay Lightning that gave them their first chance at an NHL championship.
"All it took was 11 years," Backstrom said. Ovechkin was so emotional afterward he had trouble speaking.
"We still have 'unfinish' down here," Ovechkin said, referring to the Cup final. "I'm overcome with emotion right now. It's tough to explain. I think we've been waiting for this moment for a long time.
"Me and [Backstrom], since my third year we been together ... been through all the battles, all the playoffs, all the losses ... it's just emotion. Finally we get what we want, be in Stanley Cup final. It's still lots of hockey, still lots of energy, still lots of battles."
Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan, left, nearly 40 years ago with former Bowling Green State University teammate, now Vegas Golden Knights GM, George McPhee. The pair have crossed paths several times over the years and their teams will now face off for the Stanley Cup.
BGSU ATHLETICS PHOTO