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Golden Knights, Caps primed for improbable Cup clash

China Daily | Updated: 2018-05-29 07:52
Washington Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom (19) skates with the puck against Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Shea Theodore (27) in the first period in game one of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final at T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas, NV, US, May 28, 2018. [Photo/Agencies]

LAS VEGAS - The Washington Capitals have waited nearly 44 years to raise the Stanley Cup for the first time.

Their only remaining obstacles are some desert-dwelling misfits who refuse to wait for anything.

The expansion Vegas Golden Knights - already the most successful first-year franchise in North American pro sports history - are just four wins away from an astounding championship.

Even the players from the NHL's last two teams standing seemed a bit surprised by their achievements when they gathered on Sunday in balmy 84-degree Nevada weather on the eve of Game 1.

"Who would have thunk it?" asked Vegas defenseman Nate Schmidt, who played the previous four seasons for the Capitals.

Indeed, a first-time NHL champ will be crowned next month after a final between two teams that arrived at hockey's ultimate destination from very different directions.

While the Caps finally climbed over the hump in the Eastern Conference, the Golden Knights have been bulldozing every logical obstacle in their path since October.

"We've been able to do some things in the playoffs, but we never got to that last stage until now," Washington forward TJ Oshie said.

"And everybody knows what Vegas did in the first year is very special. We're both hungry. This is going to be a beast of a series."

The Golden Knights have exceeded every expectation by utilizing a rich expansion draft and clever coaching to create a team that dominated the Pacific Division and then rampaged through the Western Conference playoffs.

The Capitals have repeatedly fallen short of their postseason goals during captain Alex Ovechkin's career, including a heartbreaking shutout loss to Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 7 of the second round against Pittsburgh last spring.

After falling to Fleury's champion Penguins in the past two postseasons, the Caps revamped their roster with youth and finally overcame years of playoff disappointment to reach their first Final in two decades.

Of course, Fleury is in the way again - in goal for the Golden Knights.

While Capitals coach Barry Trotz skated his now-customary hot lap before practice at T-Mobile Arena on Sunday, the Golden Knights had their usual standing-room-only crowd for practice at their training complex in suburban Summerlin, Nevada.

Their grip on this sports-hungry gambling hub was already strong, and the city will come to a standstill this week during the Cup games in the arena behind the New York New York hotel-casino and its 150-foot Statue of Liberty, which has been wearing a Golden Knights jersey since April.

The series will also showcase two future Hall of Famers who can cement their respective legacies.

Ovechkin is a formidable scorer and competitor, but he has never won an Olympic medal with Russia or a Stanley Cup ring with the Caps.

He's keeping a sense of humor about this momentous trip: With a straight face on Sunday, Ovechkin said Russian President Vladimir Putin had called him to wish him luck, before adding: "I'm just joking."

"We want to be here," Ovechkin said. "We worked so hard all year. I don't think anybody believes in us, and nobody believes in Vegas, but we're right now in the Stanley Cup Finals, fighting for the Cup. Come enjoy this moment."

Fleury already has three Stanley Cup rings, but he has added another incredible act to his career with tenacious play for the Golden Knights, whose inexperienced pros have leaned on him to get through tough nights.

"I think it's weird seeing that team here, being in the Cup the first year," said Brooks Orpik, the only Washington player with a ring.

"But I'm not surprised Fleury is here. Without him, they weren't beating us last year. He singlehandedly won a couple of games when we totally outplayed, so I've seen it all before."

Associated Press

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