A National Hockey League season is an endurance test, a marathon. Over the span of six months, 31 teams play 82 games each to determine which 16 of them will get the opportunity to play beyond those 82, and to compete for perhaps the most coveted and certainly the most difficult and storied championship trophy in all North American professional sports - The Stanley Cup.
We're down to the last of the NHL hockey for another season. Two teams remain standing at this point, the Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights, and the rest of the entire season has now been whittled down to as few as one and as many as three games.
Video: Two-Man Advantage | June 7
Both of these teams will play the final game of hockey this season. Both of these teams will have the shortest summer of any of the league's 31 teams, and both will be susceptible to a Cup Final hangover this fall when the 2018-19 campaign gets underway.
That's where the similarities end. One of these teams will experience - for the first time in its franchise's history - the unbridled joy and ecstasy and pure relief that comes from holding and hoisting that glorious chalice after toiling relentlessly - and sweating and bleeding - for eight months to earn that right.
The other won't get that. Or anything else, really.
In many ways, losing in the Cup Final is the worst fate an NHL team can suffer. You play in the last game of the season, have the shortest summer, have to deal with the hangover, get the second worst draft position and endure everything the Cup winner endures, except with none of the spoils. There will be no ring, no name on the Cup, no day with the Cup. It is akin to finishing second in a long, high stakes poker hand in which several other participants have already exited, and cheaply. You're fully invested to the end, and that factors against you getting back to the same point the following season. You're already operating with a handicap.
For the first time in their checkered 44-year history, the Caps are playing a game that will result in them raising the Cup if they win that game. They'll also be simultaneously seeking to avoid the aforementioned fate of the team that loses the last NHL game played in the 2018 playoffs.
Video: Pregame Podium | June 7
Business As Usual - Eight months ago tonight, the Caps played their home opener of the 2017-18 season, beating the Canadiens 6-1. That was the second game of the season; tonight is the 106thgame they've played, including regular season and playoffs.
As with the previous 105, the focus is on the one right in front of them, and nowhere else. For the first time in four rounds of these playoffs, the Caps own a 3-1 lead in a series. Washington closed out the opposition in its first opportunity to do so in five straight playoff series now, dating back to the first round of the 2016 playoffs. Additionally, they've closed out all five of those series on the road. The focus is on getting it done tonight.
"I think we just stick to what we've been doing, what's been giving us success," says Caps right wing T. J. Oshie. "I personally don't want to go back to Washington and use any wiggle room we have. So it's really just a matter of keep doing what we're doing, and in some areas, we can definitely improve."
"That's been our goal since day one I think, to win it all. But at the same time, we know we're getting ready for and you have to treat it as a normal game even if you know it's not a normal game, it's the Stanley Cup Final. We've just got to stay focused and make sure we take it one game at a time."
Washington is 9-3 on the road in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and it would tie an NHL record for most road wins (10) in a single playoff year with a victory in Vegas tonight.
"First of all, I think it doesn't matter if you win it on the road or at home," says Backstrom. "We just want to get that fourth one. We haven't accomplished anything yet but, our fans have been waiting a long time for this, and it's been an emotional playoff with a lot of people involved and our fans. I think they deserve something special."
Winning a Cup would certainly qualify as special.
"It's a special moment for sure," says Caps center Evgeny Kuznetsov. "It's been a long way for us, and we did a lot of good things. We just have to focus. If we're going to play our game, it's not easy to play against us."
"I think they've taken the process that this is fun," says Caps coach Barry Trotz of his crew. "They enjoy the battle, they enjoy the process and everything about it. I think they have a good way of looking at things, I think their perspective on the whole playoffs is different than it has been in the past. And so I think they're just - like I am - enjoying the process of competing, and the whole process of the next opponent and the next game."
Video: Barry Trotz Pregame | June 7
Knight Lines - Without benefit of a morning skate because of the 5 p.m. local start time in Vegas, we're not sure as to the Golden Knights line combinations for Game 5. But reading the tea leaves from their Wednesday practice, they may make some changes in the bottom six of their forward group.
David Perron was the team's assist leader with 50 during the regular season, and he was also the team's third leading scorer. He is likely to draw back in after a one-game hiatus as a healthy scratch with Ryan Carpenter likely coming out. William Carrier also may return to the Vegas lineup on the fourth line, with Ryan Reaves as the likeliest to sit out.
Vegas has managed only four goals at five-on-five in the last three games, so it appears to be looking to put a more skilled lineup on the ice for what is a must-win Game 5.
In The Nets - Braden Holtby stepped into the crease in the third period of Game 2 of Washington's first-round series with Columbus with the Caps trailing the Blue Jackets, 4-3. He was tagged with an overtime loss that night, but started and won the next four games to help the Capitals move into the second round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Heading into Game 5, Holtby leads the NHL in games played (22), wins (15), goals against average (2.13) and minutes played (1,326) in the 2018 playoffs. He has permitted two or fewer goals in five of his last six starts, and he has permitted just four goals at five-on-five in the last three games of the Cup Final series against Vegas.
Holtby has made three starts on two days rest in the 2018 playoffs, as he will be doing in Thursday's Game 5. He is 2-1 with a 1.68 GAA and a .938 save pct. in those three games.
Just over 11 years ago, Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury made his Stanley Cup Playoff debut with Pittsburgh, surrendering six goals in a 6-3 loss to the Ottawa Senators. He also surrendered six goals in his most recent playoff start, on Monday in Game 4. In 134 career playoff contests, Fleury has yielded as many as six goals on five occasions; he is 2-1 with one no decision in the starts immediately after those games.
Washington has reached Fleury for at least three goals in each of the four games in this series, and a dozen of the 16 goals the Caps have scored in the four games came at even strength, two of them at four-on-four. In four games in this series, Fleury is 1-3 with a 4.08 GAA and an .845 save pct.
All Lined Up - Here is how we expect the Caps and the Golden Knights to look when they take the ice for Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final series on Thursday 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
90-Tatar, 21-Eakin, 57-Perron
92-Nosek, 41-Bellemare, 28-Carrier
84-Grabovski (post-concussion syndrome)