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This Stanley Cup Final Has The Potential To Be An Instant Classic

Its almost June, which means that the fourth most popular major sport in the United States is set to begin its championship match-up. The Stanley Cup Final. Even people who dont follow hockey at all have likely heard the phrase and understand that it is a really, really big deal to some people.  

For a casual sports fan, the question might be: Why should I invest my time getting into this winter sport tournament? Summer heat has already arrived to large swathes of the country. Its NBA Playoffs time and lot of people are already deep into the relaxing routine of the Major League Baseball season.

The Stanley Cup playoffs is a different animal altogether. The mind-boggling physicality, athleticism and skill on display is shocking. Even people who never had any interest in sports seem to be startled and sucked in by the intensity of playoff hockey.   

Alex Ovechkin Opens the Scoring in ECF Game 7

Caps captain Alex Ovechkin gets Game 7 started with his 12th goal of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The pain and frustration resulting from this all-out battle leads to simmering anger. Will the players be able to control their aggression, or will the rage boil over? One bad penalty can turn a game, even a series. A best-of-seven series often becomes a brutal grind accented by jaw-dropping displays of skill and speed. 

Here, a teams fate is often decided by the whims of the hockey gods a bouncing puck, a struck crossbar. Sometimes though, by a blistering breakaway at over 25 mph, by a bone-crunching hit in open ice or a thoughtless penalty.  

The stakes will never be higher for these players. There are moments of pure, heroic sacrifice. Laying out in front of a 90 mph slap shot or taking a massive hit in order to get the puck out of your own zone; its the blood, sweat and tears that fans of every sport seem to demand from their favorite athletes. What differentiates one series from another is the questions, the stories and resulting the drama.

Washington Capitals vs Vegas Golden Knights Somebody is gonna win their first Cup.

The national media has, somewhat unfortunately, decided to run with the narrative that the first-year expansion team in Las Vegas is an underdog story. Winners of Pacific Division, with a 12-3 record through three playoff rounds?  Underdogs? 

The other side of Vegas, by the way, has the Golden Knights as the favorites.  

Golden Knights’ epic WCF opening ceremony

The Golden Knights take the ice at home in the Western Conference Final for the first time, as the Golden Knight slays a mighty fighter jet in front of a raucous Vegas crowd!

They want you to believe that this is a team of misfits and castoffs, aching for revenge against their former General Managers and teammates, who decided they were expendable.  

They must be playing with a chip on their shoulders, Boys, I bet he cant he cant wait to show the other team what they gave up!  

Nonsense.  This is not only a lazy narrative, its pretty dismissive of the talent and quality of the Vegas players. There is a much more interesting story here if you dig for it.

It is true, expansion teams have generally been miserable for their first couple of years. That is likely because they werent blessed with the kind of favorable single-team expansion draft scenario that half-billion dollar franchise fee will get you these days.  

It seems a little strange to think that this would only buy you a bunch of borderline NHL players that nobody else really wanted that much.  Salary cap, no-trade clauses, prospect considerations its a complicated analysis.  

Vegas got a lot of pretty good players and did a bit of wheeling and dealing to make their situation even better. Some players were very talented guys, buried on lower lines and not seeing much ice time. Some were legitimate stars playing in bad markets or for bad teams, for management which apparently undervalued them. I imagine these guys were happy to go off to a new adventure in the desert.  

They came together quickly and turned into an amazing team. They surpassed everyones expectations from day one. They never slowed down, all the while the hockey world waited for the other shoe to drop and the real Golden Knights to show up. They were legit all along, a kind of literal Cinderella story. 

Isnt that more interesting than the tired idea of some jilted lovers, hoping to unleash their fury on their exes?  

This brings us to former Capital fan-favorite Nate Schmidt, snatched away on draft day by Vegas. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the DMV.  

Vegas ties the game on Nate Schmidt’s Goal (Sharks vs. Knights 2018 NHL Playoffs)

Nate Schmidt scores to tie the game 3-3 in Game 2 against the San Jose Sharks. https://www.sidelinescores.com

The eternally smiling defenseman was shaping up to be a top-pairing mainstay for the Caps in the following year, with a lot of speed and offense to go along with his defensive responsibility.  

I doubt it would be a projection on Caps fans part to say he was sad to go as well. After all, his star was on the rise on a very good team. But, this is only business and you take it as it comes. 

Off to Vegas and now the second most popular smiling face on the Golden Knights second to one Marc-Andre Fleury.

Fleury spent a lot of years on a very good Pittsburgh Penguins team, who won the last two Stanley Cups after dispatching some of the best teams the Washington Capitals had iced in the Ovechkin era.  [Well get to him!]  

Second round failures for the Presidents Trophy-winning Capitals at the hands of their hated rivals two years in a row. Theres another plot point for you. Fleury is the last remaining ghost for his squad to bust in this playoffs; one who has haunted and tortured him and his mates for years. On this topic, the legacy of Alexander Ovechkin is at stake.

Alex Ovechkin, The Great Eight, the greatest pure goal scorer of his generation.  

We dont need to go through his credentials, they are readily available and duly impressive. The unfair knock on him is that he hasnt led his team to postseason success. His postseason stats are impeccable, but he has often been let down by his supporting cast. 

Alex Ovechkin reflects on career, reaching the 600-goal plateau

Capitals star Alex Ovechkin sits down with NHL Network’s Kevin Weekes to talk about reaching the 600-goal plateau, his NHL career, style of play and childhood in Russia For the latest hockey action, subscribe to our channel by clicking the big, red shiny SUBSCRIBE button Watch live hockey wherever you are: https://www.nhl.com/tv Breaking news, scores, stats, analysis & real-time highlights: https://www.nhl.com Feeling social?

The Washington Capitals, established in 1974, have made one single trip to the Stanley Cup Final in their history and.they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings in 1998. Ovechkin was a rookie in 2005.  

This playoffs marked Ovechkins first trip to the Eastern Conference Finals and now his first Stanley Cup Final appearance. Can he finally get it done or will he go down in history as the undisputed most talented player never to win a cup?

Unlike the Golden Knights, who cut through their Western Conference matchups like a hot knife through butter, the Capitals have faced plenty of adversity so far. They went down 0-2 in their first round series with Columbus, only to come back and win four straight. They battled their old Penguins foes in the second round, taking the series in six games. 

The Eastern Conference Final went to Game Seven against the Lightning, a betting favorite coming into the series. Tampa Bays high-powered offense had scored the most NHL regular season goals in almost a decade. The Caps shut them out for almost two and a half full games to close out the series emphatically.  

The Caps are doing everything the hard way, while Vegas has faced little effective resistance.  

Does this indicate the vast superiority of the Golden Knights or will the story change when they face a battle-hardened, experienced, star-laden team who has found ways to win?  We shall see.

DSP, Playoff Producer

If Ovechkin is going to play a bearded Russian Moses, and lead DC sports fans fully out of the wilderness, he is going to need help. One reliable source of support has been the Capitals sturdy fourth line, whose most compelling story this year has been Devante Smith-Pelly.  

A physical player on a defensive and forechecking line, DSP has shown a knack for scoring in playoff opportunities. 

Smith-Pelly was coming off of a disappointing season with the New Jersey Devils, who ended up waiving him and buying out the remaining year on his contract. He was signed by the Caps out of training camp, and proceeded to play in 75 regular season games, the most of any season in his career.  

He scored seven goals and tallied nine assists. His scoring touch improves dramatically in his playoff performances.   So far in the 2018 playoffs, he has four goals and an assist in 19 games. If he isnt careful, he could match his goal total from the regular season.  

Smith-Pelly exits after taking McDonagh’s slap shot to head

Devante Smith-Pelly would need help getting off the ice after taking a shot from Ryan McDonagh to the head.

This type of big game production isnt unprecedented with DSP, as he had five goals in 12 playoff games with the Ducks back in 2014 after playing in only 19 regular season games and recording two goals in that span. Besides this playoff scoring run, he also recorded 66 hits in those 19 games, giving the opposition a gift of a bit of worry in the back of their minds.  

Additionally, the best example of defensive bravery in the most recent series occurred in game seven, when Smith-Pelly threw himself out on the ice in a last ditch effort to block a shot from the blue line. DSP caught the puck in the back of his neck, a scary moment for everyone on the ice. Luckily he was able to get to his feet after play was stopped.  He returned to the game later.

Smith-Pelly was the Capitals nominee for the Masterton Trophy, awarded to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.   

In a widely covered incident in Chicago, Smith-Pelly was subjected to racist taunts from fans while serving a five-minute penalty for fighting. This incident shined a light once again on the problems minority players face, and led DSP to address the loneliness and isolation he has sometimes felt, pursuing his dreams to play a game he obviously loves.  

Capitals’ Devante Smith-Pelly Calls Racial Taunts ‘Ignorant’

Four fans were ejected from the United Center Saturday night for chanting a racial taunt while Devante Smith-Pelly served a penalty. CBS 2’s Charlie De Mar reports.

After the incident, support from his team, coach, and the league was immediate and unwavering. 

Fans in Chicago, embarrassed by their fellow fans and eager to make a statement, raised funds which DSP donated to the Fort DuPont hockey program. Smith-Pelly enjoys the prospect of being a role model and hopefully his involvement and the organization’s donations help the minority youth hockey program to flourish.  

The attention brought forth more discussion in the hockey world, which can only be a good thing. This league has been working hard to change its image from that of a sport for affluent whites to making good on their promise that Hockey is for Everyone.  

To be fair, the league seems to legitimately want to change the culture for more than the usual cynical financial reasons.  As usual it appears to be a number of fans who lag behind. 

Hopefully Smith-Pelly has some Stanley Cup Final heroics up his sleeve, as I for one would love to see him hoist the Cup, knowing how he contributed with his courage and uncanny ability to put the puck in the net when you least expect it.

This Cup Final has the potential to be an instant classic. It has human interest stories for days and the usual sense of imminent heart-stoppage for fans of the teams involved.  

Luckily this match-up features more than a few of the leagues offensive and goaltending superstars, lending a reason for even the most casual fans to take it in.  Also, at least it will be a different winner this year!

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