Every Stanley Cup Final is compelling. At no point does any hockey fan look at a Stanley Cup Final matchup and say, “Wow, this series looks boring. It will probably be no fun at all.” But this year’s has the potential to be better than most, because it includes two teams with tons of differences but a couple of vital things in common.
In one corner: the Washington Capitals, playing in their second Cup Final ever and their first in 20 years. They’re trying to win their first Cup in 43 seasons of existence. They beat the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final on Wednesday.
In the other corner, but unusually for their city, not of a boxing ring: the Vegas Golden Knights. The best first-year expansion team in pro sports history somehow made the Final with a ragtag roster of players the other 30 teams didn’t care enough about keeping to protect from a Knights-friendly expansion draft.
This series starts Monday night in Las Vegas. It will rule. Here’s why.
1. Someone’s winning their first Stanley Cup ever.
This is the sixth time in league history that the Final has been guaranteed to produce a first-time winner. It’s the first such occasion in 11 years.
That’s extra cool in an era where the NHL prides itself on parity but hasn’t had a lot of it among Cup winners. The Penguins, Blackhawks, and Kings have won eight of the last nine championships. Watching teams set up mini-dynasties can be a nice time, but it’s going to be cool to watch new teams and faces this year. The Capitals have only been this far once, and they got swept by the Red Wings in 1998. There’s a certain novelty to the Capitals playing in this round, only surpassed by Vegas playing in it.
Only two players in the series — Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik — have won the Cup. Fleury won three times with the Penguins, and Orpik was his teammate for the first of those championships, in 2009.
2. Alex Ovechkin is playing for a championship. Finally.
Ovechkin is the best goal scorer of his generation. It’s not close. His 607 regular-season goals since entering the league are 196 more than the next highest scorer in that time, Sidney Crosby. Ovechkin had 49 of them this year and has so far added 12 in these playoffs. That Ovechkin has not played in a Stanley Cup Final already is a horrible shame for hockey fans. This sport deserves to have its most electric scorer on its biggest stage.
3. Marc-Andre Fleury is one of the league’s best stories.
Fleury is having a historically great playoff run. He has a 12-3 record with a .947 save percentage and 1.68 goals-against average. Only two other goalies have played as many games as Fleury has these playoffs and finished with a save percentage and average that good. If he has a good enough Final, he’ll have a real claim to the best goaltending postseason ever.
Fleury is 33 and a three-time Cup champion with the Penguins. He beat the Capitals in the playoffs en route to two of those Cup wins, and now he’s standing in their way again — after the Penguins let him go to Vegas in last year’s expansion draft. That’s part of the story: The Penguins actually paid Vegas a draft pick because they wanted the new franchise to take Fleury off their hands. It was a fair decision, but if it’s motivated Fleury, so be it.
4. Scientifically, either Ovechkin or Fleury has to win the Cup.
Either the era’s best goal-scorer gets his franchise over a nearly half-century-long hump and wins the Cup, or an aging goalie who was supposed to be on the downside of his career leads an expansion team to an unprecedented win in its first year as a team.
Let’s just forget that one of them also has to lose.
5. Fleury isn’t even the only goaltending redemption tale here.
The Capitals’ Braden Holtby was one of the league’s best net-minders between 2014 and ‘17. He finished in the top four in Vezina Trophy voting three years in a row, winning it once. He was individually great in the playoffs, too, with the exception of a down year last year.
Something was wrong with Holtby this season. He posted by far the worst numbers of his career, and the Capitals benched him for the first two games of the playoffs. He replaced backup-turned-starter Philip Grubauer two periods into the Caps’ second game of the first round, and he’s been building and building ever since. Holtby pitched his first two shutouts of the season in Games 6 and 7 against the Lightning.
6. For fans of the other 30 teams, this matchup is pretty harmless.
Vegas has never hurt your team, unless you’re a fan of the Kings, Sharks, or Jets. The Golden Knights don’t have any serious rivals whose fans will be stricken for months at the sight of this team skating the Cup around the ice. There has never been less potential for schadenfreude in a Cup Final result than if Vegas goes on to win it.
The Capitals have a few rivalries. The most notable is with the Penguins, the team they beat (after a long history of losing to them) in the second round. Even if you’re a Penguins fan, you should be able to get over your rival winning a Cup after you’ve won the last two. Elsewhere, who really has reason to root against this bunch of former lovable losers?
It’s more fun when your team is in the Final. If it’s not, things could be worse than this.
7. The world gets to see more of Vegas’ otherworldly arena pregame show.
If you haven’t seen a pregame show that includes a cosplaying Knight dueling a mascot for the other team with a sword, faux-stabbing that mascot to death, and then having the vanquished foe lifted up into the rafters while thousands of screaming hockey fans wave towels during a laser show while fire spurts out of a make-believe castle on the arena’s upper level, you’re in luck. The Knights do that before every home game.
This series needs to go seven games.