The Stanley Cup differs from the other three major North American sports in two regards. Firstly the winners don’t go around claiming to be “World Champions”, and secondly it’s somewhat unique that although a team sport, every member of the winning team gets their name engraved on the bands that make up the base. They also each get to take the Cup with them for a day wherever they want – can you imagine World Rugby or FIFA letting that happen?
But onto this year’s two finalists, one of which will lift the large trophy for the very first time.
Coming out of the Eastern Conference are the Washington Capitals. The “Caps” finished with 49 wins and topped the Metropolitan division, before toppling Tampa Bay to book their place in the best-of-seven series. This will be just their second Finals in franchise history, having been swept 4-0 by the Detroit Red Wings in 1998. Washington’s big name is Alex Ovechkin, with the Russian forward a prolific goalscorer (607 in 1003 NHL games) since being selected first overall by the club in the 2004 Draft and much will depend on him and his two linemates, Swede Nicklas Backstrom and American TJ Oshie. Veteran American defenseman Brooks Orpik will be asked to lock down that end of the ice, and they’ll look to exploit their speed and create mismatches for Ovechkin to punish.
They also have a history-maker, with Welsh-born Australian forward Nathan Walker poised to become the first person from a Southern Hemisphere nation to appear in the Stanley Cup Finals.
As for their opponents, well at this time last year the Vegas Golden Knights didn’t even have a single player. Normally expansion teams are cannon fodder for the rest of the league, but having broken the taboo of top-tier professional teams operating in Sin City (the NFL’s Raiders are scheduled to move there by 2020) they’ve turned that convention on its head. Their team was formed through the expansion draft – a collection of players left unprotected by their then-clubs for various reasons – and a smattering of free agent signings. Even their coach was a cast-off; when Gerard Gallant was fired from his previous job as head coach of the Florida Panthers he was booted off the team bus and told to find his own way home. No wonder they were 500-1 longshots to win the Stanley Cup at the start of the season. Yet improbably they posted the third-best record in the conference with 51 wins, and toppled Winnipeg in the conference finals.
Their best-known player is goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury who played in four Stanley Cup Finals with Pittsburgh, winning three, and one of just two players on the roster with Finals experience. They’ll expect a lot from their top offensive line of Swedish centre William Karlsson, and Canadians Reilly Smith and the speedy Jonathan Marchessault.
There is of course the backdrop that the Golden Knights have played their inaugural season under as well. Just two nights before their opening game, the slaughter massacre of concert-goers by a gunman took place in the city, leading to the cancellation of an elaborate performance before their home opener. A few weeks ago the club lifted a banner into the rafters there, bearing the number 58 and the names of those killed. It would be some surreal achievement to place the Stanley Cup Champions one next to it.
The heart says Vegas, but the head says Washington in six games. It will be well worth watching.
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