While the majority of sports fans will have to wait for the long slog called the NBA Finals to begin Thursday night, the National Hockey League (with an equally lengthy season) will feature two teams in search of their first-ever Stanley Cup trophy on Monday and Wednesday night this week.
Heck, one of the teams wasn’t even in the NHL last year at this time!
It is the expansion team from the West versus the “close-but-no-cigar” Eastern team, as the Vegas Golden Knights will take on the Washington Capitals in the 2018 Stanley Cup Finals.
The biggest question for a hockey novice like me is, “How can a brand new team, which selected one non-starting player from the other 30 teams, get into the NHL Finals during their first season?”
According to the NHL’s website, every professional hockey franchise must carry at least 20 players. Since there are five skaters (plus a goalie) on the ice at any one time, each team has six starters with a gaggle of supporting characters.
Before the expansion draft by Las Vegas, each existing NHL franchise was allowed to “protect” up to eleven players on their roster.
So, the Vegas Golden Knights, whose General Manager previously worked for the Caps, filled their first-year roster by selecting one non-essential player from each of the other teams. The Golden Knights is a squad built with cast-offs and old guys – players unwanted by their former employers.
Enter goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. The former goalie for last year’s champion Pittsburgh Penguins was considered on the downside of his hockey career at age 33 and was paid a hefty $6 million per year. The Penguins failed to “protect” Fleury (a three-time Stanley Cup champion) in favor of a younger goalie, and Las Vegas snapped him up.
Fleury’s defensive efforts have kept his new team close in games all year, while his experienced clubhouse leadership has helped to propel the Golden Knights through the playoffs during their inaugural season.
Meanwhile, the Washington Capitals polished off the defending champs from Pittsburgh in the quarterfinals of the East and then vanquished the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. The Caps are the road warriors of the NHL playoffs with an amazing 8-2 record on the opposing team’s ice.
Washington has been in the league since 1974 and lost their only other appearance in the NHL Stanley Cup Finals in 1998.
Vegas, whose city name “Las” was dropped as it would add a fourth word to the team’s name, is the first expansion franchise to ever make it to the NHL’s championship round.
A first-time winner will emerge in what should be a fitting Knight-Cap to an interesting NHL postseason.