The Pittsburgh Penguins' run to the first Stanley Cup three-peat in 35 years would have been a great story to follow but it's over. Nevertheless, the demise of Sidney Crosby & Co. hardly leaves the NHL without story lines.
In fact, the league will be full of them as the conference finals open Friday night at Tampa Bay's Amalie Arena.
It's Washington at Tampa Bay in the East to get things started, and Vegas at Winnipeg in Game 1 of the West final on Saturday. This will be the first final four in NHL history where the teams combined for just one previous Cup win, that being Tampa Bay's Game 7 triumph over Calgary in 2004. And in quite the indignity to Sabres fans, the West final features two teams who weren't even in the league in 2011, the last time Buffalo made the playoffs.
The Capitals will be playing a conference final game for the first time since 1998 – when they won Game 6 at then-Marine Midland Arena on an overtime goal by Joe Juneau that eliminated the Sabres. Longtime Buffalo fans will recall that defenseman Mike Wilson and winger Michal Grosek have still yet to lay a glove on Juneau as he pushed the puck past Dominik Hasek at the edge of the crease.
It took another Game 6 overtime goal, by Evgeny Kuznetsov, to finally get the Caps past the Penguins and send Alex Ovechkin into his first conference final in a career that dates to 2005. Ovechkin had played on seven previous division championship teams, three Presidents' Trophy-winning squads and six 100-point teams – and all of them had flamed out in either the first or second round of the playoffs.
Ovechkin is the NHL's active leader in goals (607) and scored 49 this season, falling one shy of his eighth 50-goal campaign. He has eight goals in the playoffs, already the second-highest in a postseason during his career. He has 54 goals and 105 points in 109 playoff games, and 33 points in 26 games against the Penguins, so it's usually been hard to point the finger at him for the Caps' postseason woes.
"It's something new for us and it's cool," Ovechkin said of the win over Pittsburgh after practice this week. "There was not really a celebration. We were happy. We'll celebrate when it's over. Hopefully we win the Cup and then we'll celebrate. Right now, there's satisfaction we beat the Stanley Cup champions finally and now we'll move forward to play a very good team."
In recent times, there's limited comparison to a top team like the Caps consistently falling short in the playoffs, especially against the same opponent.
Baseball's Atlanta Braves appeared in 15 straight postseasons from 1991-2005 and won just one World Series but lost to a variety of foes. For the best example, you might have to go back to Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls, who lost three straight times to the Detroit Pistons before finally beating the "Bad Boys" in the 1991 Eastern Conference finals en route to the first of their six NBA championships.
The Capitals' win was particularly notable because they have been dealing with adversity in these playoffs and have managed to persevere. There have been injuries, notably the hand problem of Nicklas Backstrom, and the fact they lost the first two games to Columbus at home in overtime in the first round when coach Barry Trotz used backup Philipp Grubauer in goal. This time, they've forged on with just enough offense and with starter Braden Holtby regaining his game in the net.
"We got a lot of demons out of the way .... It showed a lot of resiliency, which I've said all year," Trotz said. "We talked right after the game for a couple of minutes about a team win and we talked a few minutes about how we're only halfway. We're going to play a real good opponent in Tampa. Just keep a level head. Get the work boots on and let's get ready to strap the helmets on, go to Tampa and go nose to nose with them."
Tampa Bay is in the East final for the third time in four years and history says this round will last. All four of the Bolts' previous trips went seven games – wins in 2004 vs. Philadelphia and 2015 vs. the New York Rangers, and losses in 2011 to Boston and 2016 to Pittsburgh.
If the Caps advance, it will ensure just the second Cup final since 2000 pitting teams who have never won the Cup (since no one remaining in the West is a previous winner). The only other instance was in 2007, when Ottawa beat the Sabres in the Eastern Conference final en route to losing to Anaheim in five games in the Cup final.
Out West, Winnipeg had one of the most underappreciated 114-point seasons in NHL history but things are no longer quiet in the True North anymore. After winning three games in Nashville, including Game 7 on Thursday night, you could easily make the case for the Jets to be a Cup favorite. Built skillfully through the draft and through trades like the Evander Kane deal with the Sabres that brought Tyler Myers, Joel Armia and first-round pick Jack Roslovic, the Jets have made a slow climb to the top of the league.
Picked two years ago by the Hockey News to win the Stanley Cup in 2019, much like Sports Illustrated picked the Houston Astros to win the World Series last October three years in advance, the Jets are actually ahead of schedule.
In their first six seasons back in the NHL after returning from Atlanta, the Jets didn't win a single playoff game and, in fact, only appeared once (getting swept by Anaheim in 2015). But after dispatching Minnesota and Anaheim, they remain the only hope for the first Canadian champion since Montreal won the Cup in 1993.
Meanwhile, the Golden Knights are looking to become the first team in NHL history to win three playoff series in their inaugural season in the league. Only two clubs have won three series in their first postseason appearance: The 1926 Montreal Maroons, who won the Stanley Cup in their second season, and the 1996 Florida Panthers, who lost the Cup final to Colorado in their third.
That early Florida run, however, did not portend long-term success for the franchise. The Panthers have yet to win another playoff series over the last 22 seasons and, in fact, have played in only four. Hope Vegas fans are enjoying the run. Repeat trips are far from a sure thing. The Capitals certainly know that.