LAS VEGAS -- It's not easy to play for the Stanley Cup. Just consider the Washington Capitals. They've had Alex Ovechkin on their team since 2005 and had not made it to the Eastern Conference finals until this year even though they had seven 100-point seasons with the Great Eight leading the way.
So then how in the world do you explain the Vegas Golden Knights?
They're easily the story of the decade in the NHL, and rivaling the tales of the Warriors, Cavs and Cubs for the best tale in all of sports in the 2010s. They're making look easy what has been impossible for many teams in this league to accomplish for generations. And a title would make them the first team in the four major sports to win in its inaugural season since the 1950 Cleveland Browns won the NFL crown.
Ovechkin's quest to cement his legacy against the remarkable rise of the Golden Knights is just one storyline for a fascinating Cup final that opens Monday night at T-Mobile Arena (Fair warning: Be tuned to NBC for the incredible pregame show. Nowhere else but Vegas do they do it like this).
The Golden Knights will have been off a week by the time Media Day commences on Sunday. Talk won't be cheap in this one. These stories are incredible. Here are some of the key ones to watch:
1). No Expansion blues: Anyone crabbing the NHL made things too easy for Vegas is a revisionist. The whole world thought the Golden Knights would stink because, well, that's what first-year teams do. Who was going to score on this club? Who was leading the defense? Those questions have been answered in amazing ways. William Karlsson's 43 goals? Former Sabre Brayden McNabb anchoring the blueline? Uh-huh.
Let's not forget that owner Bill Foley's publicly-stated goal was to make the playoffs in year three and win the Cup in year six. Guys like James Neal and David Perron were supposed to be deadline fodder to acquire more draft picks to build for the future. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was supposed to bring experience and leadership but no one would have expected him to play perhaps the best hockey of his life (12-3, 1.68/.947) and be in line to win the Conn Smythe Trophy -- perhaps even as the sixth losing goalie to take it if the Knights don't win the series.
And, of course, the club has spent all season honoring survivors and first responders of the horrific Oct. 1 shooting that claimed 58 lives. The No. 58 was retired to the arena rafters in memory of the victims. Playing with passion certainly helps.
Everyone on this team plays with a chip. Even coach Gerard Gallant was cast aside by the Florida Panthers, who should get Christmas cards from Vegas fans forever for the gifts they provided in expansion.
"This team is built of three different components: Character, coachability and speed," NBC's Pierre McGuire said Thursday on the network's pre-final conference call. "And when you watch them play, every one of those characteristics stands out. This might be one of the better-skill finals and speed finals we have seen in a long time."
2). The Greatness of Eight: Ovechkin is only 32 and hardly at the twilight of his career but the emphasis on a superstar winning a Cup hasn't been this great since Ray Bourque and Dominik Hasek finally became winners in 2001 and 2002, respectively. But they had to leave their longtime teams to raise the trophy in Colorado and Detroit. After a 49-goal regular season, he has career-highs of 12 goals and 22 points over 19 games thus far in the playoffs.
When he scored 62 seconds into Game 7 at Tampa, you just had the feeling this was finally going to be Ovechkin's year. He's already at 607 career goals and is easily on pace to be the eighth member of the 700-club by age 35. If Fleury doesn't win the Conn Smythe Trophy, Ovechkin will.
3). Newcomers: It's just the sixth time in NHL history both finalists are chasing their first Cup. It happened in 1934 between Chicago and Montreal and then didn't happen again until 1991 (Pittsburgh over Minnesota). The scenario was similar in 1996 (Colorado over Florida), 1999 (Dallas over the Sabres) and 2007 (Anaheim over Ottawa). The Cup was awarded once in Washington's Capital One Arena, when Detroit finished its four-game sweep over the Caps in 1998.
4). GMGM vs. GMGM: The biggest personality of the series who won't be on the ice is Vegas General Manager George McPhee, who downright bamboozled some teams in the expansion process to build a team that should be good for the long haul. Remember, McPhee stockpiled draft choices and his top pick last year at No. 6 overall, center Cody Glass, just finished a 102-point season at Portland of the Western League. But McPhee, of course, also built the Capitals as he acquired 13 of the 25 players who have appeared in the playoffs -- and drafted Ovechkin at No. 1 overall in 2004.
One reason Minnesota fired GM Chuck Fletcher was the way he botched the expansion draft, choosing to protect players like Marco Scandella -- who was later traded to the Sabres -- and losing both Erik Haula and Syracuse-bred Alex Tuch to Vegas. When former Nashville assistant Paul Fenton was announced as his replacement last week, owner Craig Leipold chimed in on a question to point out a similar scenario won't happen again during a potential expansion draft for a Seattle team.
What McPhee did is certainly a talking point around the league.
"George McPhee played poker with a lot of general managers," said NBC's Eddie Olczyk. "I guess it’s an easy tie-in, obviously, with Vegas. But the home runs that he hit in the games that he played, he won in a lot of those. And most important is he got the guy in goal. And that to me just kind of ties everything together when you look at the moves."
Teams like Anaheim had surpluses that were impossible to protect so they had to lose a defenseman like Shea Theodore. Not the case with lots of other teams.
"There will be a lot of scrutiny," McGuire said. "People are going to want to know what happened with the development of William Karlsson? People are going to want to know how come (defenseman) Luca Sbisa didn’t get more of a look in different places? ... Some owners understand that this was a different type of expansion draft, but I do think that there will be a lot of scrutiny in some marketplaces in terms of how you are building your team, how come your team isn’t as successful as Vegas and what is it that Vegas saw that they could do when they were building their group that made them this competitive this quick."
5). Barry Trotz's status: Might the Capitals coach get to the final -- and maybe even win the Cup -- and move on? You have to wonder. He's without a contract for next season and there was a social media firestorm after the first-round series clincher against Columbus when lip readers appeared to catch Trotz saying, "I'm gone" and "I'm not coming back" in his postgame chat with John Tortorella. Trotz has beaten back inquiries on that topic but he was clearly gone if the Caps lost that series. Remember: They were down, 2-0, and had to win Game 3 in double overtime to start their comeback.
— NHL Prospects Watcher (@Prospects_Watch) April 26, 2018
Minnesota already has a coach in Bruce Boudreau. But Leipold used to own the Nashville Predators, whom Trotz was the first coach in franchise history for, and Trotz and Fenton obviously have a long relationship together. Hmmmm.
6). Nate Schmidt vs. Caps: One of Vegas' defense stalwarts was a third-pair guy in DC but has flourished for the Knights. He had a career-high 36 points in the regular season and has been huge in the postseason with his puck-moving ability. As chips on the shoulder go in this series, Schmidt may have the biggest one of all the Knights.
7). The atmospheres: These are two of the liveliest rinks in the league. Vegas' opening is all the rage, a combination Medieval Times, drum corps and laser show unequaled in the league. The noise in the building is deafening and thousands mob T-Mobile's outdoor plaza. But don't sell Capital One Arena short. They "Rock the Red" in DC more than any place this side of Calgary. Vegas is 6-1 at home in the playoffs, one of the few teams in the league having success. The Caps, oddly enough, are just 4-5 at home but 8-2 on the road.
— Tim and Sid (@timandsid) May 17, 2018