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Golden Knights, Capitals ready for unpredictable Cup Final

Vegas looking to win in inaugural season; Washington in first appearance since 1998

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

LAS VEGAS -- Leave it to Nate Schmidt, the Vegas Golden Knights defenseman with the gift of gab, to find the right description.

"The Stanley Cup Final that was never meant to be, right?" Schmidt said Sunday.

 

[RELATED: Complete Golden Knights vs. Capitals series coverage]

 

This unpredictable Cup Final between the Golden Knights, the expansion team making history in its inaugural season, and the Washington Capitals, the team that was all but left for dead after another disappointment in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, is ready to get underway.

Game 1 of the best-of-7 series is here Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).

"Nobody believed in us and nobody believed in Vegas, and we're right now in the Stanley Cup Final, and we fight for the Cup," Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said. "I think everybody enjoys [this moment]. You guys (media) enjoy it. Fans enjoy it."

On one side, you've got Vegas, which didn't even have a roster at this time last season and has defied the odds and critics all season, finishing first in the Pacific Division with 51 wins and 109 points, going 12-3 through three rounds of the playoffs and building one of the most wildly entertaining in-arena atmospheres in the NHL.

On the other side, you've got Washington, which has made the playoffs in 10 of its past 11 seasons, has the most points in the NHL since the 2007-08 season (1,113) and the second-most wins (507) behind the Pittsburgh Penguins (514), but advanced past the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 1998, when it made its only other appearance in the Stanley Cup Final (lost 4-0 to the Detroit Red Wings).

The Golden Knights weren't supposed to be here. 

Video: Vegas, Caps to make history in 2018 Stanley Cup Final

The Capitals weren't either, with their championship window supposedly closed after last season when they lost to the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Second Round for the second straight season.

"You look on both sides, they were both down and out," Schmidt said. 

So was Vegas general manager George McPhee.

"It's funny how life goes," McPhee said. "Two years ago, I was walking around Ann Arbor [Michigan] kicking stones, couldn't get a job."

Now he's in a Cup Final that features two teams he helped build. 

McPhee is the architect of the Golden Knights. Prior to arriving in Las Vegas, he spent 17 years as the GM of the Capitals (1997-2014) and is responsible for acquiring 14 of the 25 players on Washington's roster. 

"I can certainly take pride in that," McPhee said.

One of his oldest friends and his former assistant in Washington is Brian MacLellan, the current Capitals GM. 

They won't play a minute in this series, but it's about them as much as anyone.

"It's just another chapter in this crazy book that is our season," McPhee said. 

Then there's Schmidt, the former Washington defenseman who was selected by McPhee and the Golden Knights in the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft. MacLellan and the Capitals made efforts to prevent Schmidt from being selected and to reacquire him when he was, but couldn't do it.

Now Schmidt, who leads the Golden Knights in ice time per game in the playoffs (24:53), is the one person in this series who has intimate knowledge of both sides.

Video: Discussing the X-Factors of the Stanley Cup Final

"You look at the players that we have, it was supposed to be a down-and-out team. We weren't supposed to be that great," Schmidt said. "And a closing window for another team that just got younger and got hot and started playing well."

Of course, there's Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, the two longest-tenured players for Washington who have been through every disappointment and heartbreak with the team. They are finally getting a chance to stand on this stage, to play for the Stanley Cup.

"We've been confident even if we were down," Backstrom said.

Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen took it one step further, saying they have had a never-be-denied attitude since mid-March, when coach Barry Trotz challenged their toughness in a demanding speech at a time when the team was struggling.

"It was kind of a look in the mirror moment," Niskanen said. "Maybe some guys it went right over their head, but for the guys who have been here the longest, those are the guys that said, 'He's right here, we've got to find another level.'"

They found it in the conference final, coming back after trailing 3-2 against the Tampa Bay Lightning to win Games 6 and 7 by a combined 7-0.

"We want to take this one more level," Backstrom said. "And that's winning everything."

Marc-Andre Fleury knows how to do it. He's going for his personal three-peat, winning the Stanley Cup with the Penguins the past two seasons primarily as a backup after winning the Cup as their No. 1 in 2009. 

The one constant in each of Fleury's championship seasons with Pittsburgh has been knocking out Washington along the way.

"It's always a challenge to play against the best," Ovechkin said. "I can't wait."

The wait ends Monday. 

Vegas and Washington in the Stanley Cup Final. 

"Who'da thunk it," Schmidt said.

 

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