If there were any worries about the on-ice action living up to the Vegas Golden Knights’ zany pre-game presentation, those concerns were put to rest early in Game 1 of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.
The Golden Knights took a 1-0 series after edging the Washington Capitals by a score of 6-4 during a contest that was as dramatic as an episode of “Game of Thrones.” (Or at least the off-brand “Game of Thrones” we saw during that wonderfully over-the-top intro.)
Game 1 featured multiple lead changes, some real nastiness (yes, there was a controversial Tom Wilson hit), missed calls, occasionally choppy ice, and beautiful plays. For all the twists and turns, one constant defies logic: the Golden Knights fit right in. Washington carried moments of play, sure, but this was at least a 50-50 game.
Earlier during this postseason, Marc-Andre Fleury‘s tremendous play made the difference. If Fleury wasn’t enough, Vegas’ top line often pushed the Golden Knights over the edge.
This time around, just about everyone chipped in.
Some of the most thrilling play occurred during the first period. Colin Miller scored the first goal of the championship round on a seeing-eye shot during a power play, and Vegas bottled up Washington for about half of the frame. The Capitals then scored twice in just 42 seconds, challenging Vegas to remain resilient. They passed that test, as William Karlsson made it 2-2 with a key goal.
As the contest went on, it sometimes felt like hockey’s answer to a game of H-O-R-S-E.
Shea Theodore saw that pass and decided to up the ante, sending a tremendous feed to Tomas Nosek for the game-winner (after Ryan Reaves collected another goal after a cross-check that wasn’t called). Nosek also generated the empty-netter to seal this one up.
This game featured just about everything, with excitement in large quantities. Maybe rust showed in some mistakes by both sides, but the electric pace was there. If the remainder of this series is anywhere close to as captivating as Game 1 was, hockey fans are in for a treat.
Now Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals need to shake this loss off or face yet another uphill battle to keep their own fairytale story going.
Sometimes, officials letting penalties go without a whistle might just mean that creative players face a more uphill battle. Other times, it can make things downright dangerous for just about everyone, as teams might test the limits of what goes unpenalized.
That’s especially true when emotions run high and one team feels slighted.
Game 1 of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final is displaying some of that dynamic during the third period. First, it sure seemed like Ryan Reaves got away with a cross-check before scoring the 4-4 goal, creating an unlikely two-game goal streak for the enforcer. (As you may remember, he scored the clinching goal against Winnipeg in Game 5 of the third round.)
Mike Milbury discussed the goal and on-call after Game 1:
The third period essentially ushered in both the good and bad versions of Tom Wilson.
The bad: The polarizing winger was guilty of a late hit on Vegas star Jonathan Marchessault, who was forced to go through concussion protocol. Watch video of the hit in the clip among this post’s headline.
The play drew matching minors for both teams, as Wilson was whistled for interference while David Perron received a cross-checking penalty for going after Alex Ovechkin. So, technically, those exchanges did warrant penalties, but no one received a power-play opportunity for their troubles.
Marchessault eventually returned from concussion protocol. Wilson already experienced a three-game suspension during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, yet fair or not, he remains a lightning rod for controversy.
The 5 + game misconduct for Interference was instituted for the very type of late blindside hit Tom Wilson just delivered.
Grab a bowl full of “Game of Thrones,” spice generously with Medieval Times, and turn everything up to 11 like “Spinal Tap” and you have the Vegas Golden Knights’ introduction for Game 1 of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final. Apparently fancy archers weren’t enough, either, as they decided to bring out catapults.
Yes, it was as over-the-top as many of us hoped for. If you’re the grumpy purist type, and you’re not used to it yet, then this presentation probably only made your blood boil more.
Oh yeah, there was also Michael Buffer announcing the Golden Knights’ and Washington Capitals’ lineups, not to mention Lil Jon and Criss Angel revving up the crowd. Click the clip below if you’re ready to rumble.
It’s a good thing that Vegas is overflowing with celebrities (from the red-hot to the washed-up), because other markets would probably worry about running out of star power by Game 2.
Instead, we’re expecting even more fireworks (some literal, more figurative).
Enjoy that zany, fun presentation in the video above this post’s headline.
The action on the ice should be thrilling and fascinating, too, of course, You can watch Game 1 live on NBC and stream it via this link.
Before we go, a sample of the happier reactions:
I am dying. This Vegas intro. I really think I missed my calling as a fake archer 🤣
— Jen Neale: Left-handed girl in right-handed world (@MsJenNeale) May 29, 2018
… And one fun-killer
Wow that Stanley Cup intro was tacky — even for Vegas
Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights.
The Vegas Golden Knights are a veritable gold mine of redemption stories.
Then again, one person’s “redemption” can be another person’s “revenge.” In considering the construction of the Golden Knights’ roster, some of the biggest hits feel like GM George McPhee’s revenge for the waves of Filip Forsberg jokes he absorbed between his 2014 firing and this unlikely run to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.
Optimizing the returns of the expansion draft is one of the things that stand out about McPhee’s work.
It’s one thing to merely select the best player available, or the best option available (if the best player’s contract makes him a bad choice). The Golden Knights leveraged other teams’ fears of losing their best unprotected players to set this team up for the present and future with draft picks and high-potential pieces. There was even an element of exploiting teams’ mistakes of the past, as Vegas sweetened its takeaways by absorbing other GMs’ mistakes, such as David Clarkson‘s contract.
Let’s take a long look at how the Golden Knights were built, and also realize that there’s still plenty of building to do … but in a very good way.
The good stuff that doesn’t really matter right now
Let’s face it. The Golden Knights weren’t necessarily built with 2017-18 at the forefront of their brains.
Instead, Vegas stockpiled a slew of draft picks to 1) agree not to select unprotected players or 2) to trade some of their picks to teams after the draft. Oh yeah, and they also received a pick in that Panthers situation … but that’s its own category.
Back in June 2017, the easiest way to picture the Golden Knights exceeding expectations revolved around career-best work from Marc-Andre Fleury. He’s delivered on that dream, authoring his best work in the regular season and the playoffs. Sometimes Fleury’s looked superhuman.
But one of the beautiful things for Vegas was that they didn’t always ride that train. “The Flower” was fantastic, yet injuries limited him to just 46 regular-season games, and other goalies got hurt, too. They still easily won the Pacific Division.
Some of the other established names followed a similar pattern.
James Neal and David Perron were slated to be key figures for Vegas, and they delivered. Still, those who expected Neal to be easily Vegas’ most dangerous scorer ended up being wrong (at least after a ridiculous start for Neal). Neal was good, yet an unlikely first line emerged thanks to a few factors …
Karlsson is to Forsberg …
In this deconstruction of the Capitals’ construction, it was noted that people have been joking about the Filip Forsberg trade is a frequent punchline when discussing George McPhee. The veteran executive emphatically proved that he learned his lesson, and applied that lesson to leveraging other GMs into submission.
When McPhee flipped Forsberg for Martin Erat, his Capitals were hoping to get over the hump for a playoff run, and management misdiagnosed Forsberg’s potential. Similar situations played themselves out before, during, and after the expansion draft.
While Forsberg had yet to get to the NHL level with Washington, William Karlsson showed little more than potential (and a deadly hair flip) with Columbus. Instead, the Blue Jackets bribed McPhee not to take players like Joonas Korpisalo or Josh Anderson, not realizing that Karlsson would be Vegas’ Forsberg.
Again, that was an extreme case, but not the only one. The Wild gave Vegas Alex Tuch so they’d select Erik Haula. Tuch looks slick and Haula barely missed a 30-goal season. That stings, but Minnesota didn’t want to lose someone like Mathew Dumba, and McPhee gleefully exploited that, with successes even he probably didn’t fully comprehend.
Sometimes there were ulterior motives like shedding some bad contracts (to be fair to Columbus, getting rid of Clarkson was huge; Shea Theodore was the treasure they unearthed by taking on Clayton Stoner from Anaheim). Sometimes the gains were more modest, or more futures-oriented.
Either way, the Golden Knights wouldn’t be nearly as dynamic if McPhee didn’t supplement expansion draft selections with shrewd side deals. Especially …
Skip this inevitable section, Tallon and Panthers fans
An amalgamation of many of those factors in the punchline-iest element of all, as the Florida Panthers happily gave Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith to Vegas. Two-thirds of a top line that was able to hang with and sometimes outplay lines headed by Anze Kopitar, Logan Couture/Joe Pavelski, and the Jets’ beastly offerings was gladly given up. It was baffling then, and it’s aged like the opposite of wine (unless you enjoy making jokes on social media).
Counter-intuitive as it may seem, there's been talk FLA was trying to move both Marchessault and Smith even before VGK entered the picture.
To sweeten the deal(s), consider that one of Florida’s defenses (Reilly Smith’s contract) probably helped the Golden Knights sign Marchessault to a team-friendly extension, as they both will carry $5 million cap hits. (Smith’s already was there, while Marchessault’s kicks in next season.)
You have to dig pretty deep to find other explanations. Maybe it helped Florida afford a very nice free agent in Evgenii Dadonov? Yeah, that’s about it. All McPhee could do was thank any appropriate deities and let Tallon shoot himself in the foot. Twice.
Dale Tallon des @FlaPanthers: "Analytics took a more important place in the game. We made some mistakes… and thank god I'm back" #NHL100
Sometimes, like with the Golden Knights landing Nate Schmidt, it was about a team having to make painful choices about who to expose, and that player taking off even more than expected in Vegas. There are a lot of selections and situations that look astounding in hindsight, and some deserve the extra ribbing. No situation really stands at the level of unforced errors quite like what the Panthers managed with those self-destructive moves, though.
/Takes a second to recover from just how mind-blowing that all still seems.
Speaking of former Panthers
Of course, the Golden Knights aren’t just boosted by former Panthers players.
Gerard Gallant stands as a possible unanimous choice for the Jack Adams Award a season after that embarrassing “fired and sent away in a taxi cab” fracas with Florida.
It’s honestly surprising that Gallant – someone who allegedly clashed with “The Computer Boys” in Florida during Tallon’s blink of time out of control – is the same coach who’s allowed this team to play breathtaking, aggressive hockey. This is – dare I say it? – the sort of hockey that “The Computer Boys” likely would have stumped for.
Maybe Gallant was always prescient enough to realize that these players would truly flourish if you gave them more opportunities and longer leashes to make mistakes. Maybe it was a “nothing to lose” gambit. Or perhaps he took some lessons to heart after what must have been a humbling experience in Florida.
Either way, Gallant’s been a huge part of the winner Vegas has built, and he’s a mere four wins from a Stanley Cup.
A fairly clean slate
You could mix in a little “greed is good” into this recipe, as UFAs such as James Neal and David Perron are fighting for new deals. Fleury really isn’t that far away either (he could sign an extension in July), and plenty of other players are fighting to prove their worth in the NHL. Marchessault was in a contract year before getting his extension in January, too.
Another genius element of Vegas, one that other teams must envy, is that they aren’t weighed down by a bunch of problem contracts.
Yes, they took on the albatross deals of Clarkson and Mikhail Grabovski, yet those can a) be scuttled off to Robidas Island (the LTIR) and b) they aren’t going to last long. This team isn’t just set up for a promising future because of a bounty of draft picks; they also have the sort of cap room to be credible rumored destinations for big names like Erik Karlsson and John Tavares.
That actually bring us to one of the few mistakes, at least in ignoring the Vadim Shipachyov saga: trading three prominent draft picks for Tomas Tatar.
As of this moment, that seems like a big gaffe and the NHL’s revenge for the expansion draft. Still, it’s plausible that the Golden Knights might salvage this situation. Heck, for all we know, maybe Tatar will end up providing an unexpected boost as soon as the 2018 Stanley Cup Final?
Stranger things have happened … like, you know, an expansion team winning its division and making it all the way to the final round in its first season.
No doubt about it, the Golden Knights have enjoyed some luck. Marc-Andre Fleury’s unlikely to sustain this level of play (no insult to MAF, few goalies could), and that magic may even begin to run out during Game 1 on Monday. William Karlsson probably won’t score on almost a quarter of his shots on goal next regular season.
Even if the Golden Knights take a step back, the point is that this team is constructed with remarkable skill and foresight.
You don’t even need to use the “for an expansion team” caveat this season, and there’s a chance you won’t need to going further, either. This management team could very well ride this hot hand into the future.
Whenever Forsberg does something amazing – an increasingly frequent occurrence, honestly – someone on Hockey Twitter will make fun of that trade by McPhee. Make no doubt about it; that trade looked bad in the moment and ages as well as expired cherry pie.
It’s fair to criticize that deal to this day, especially in picturing Forsberg playing alongside the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Nicklas Backstrom. It’s also far too easy to forget that McPhee was also responsible for those guys being on the roster, and for generally setting the foundation of a powerhouse team.
Boiling down 17 years as GM to one trade is probably even more unfair than reducing a band’s discography down to one single. (I’d be able to go deeper if I made a Faith No More comparison, so if you know your Warrant, do tell about their better moments in the comments. Or, stick up for “Cherry Pie.” This is the Internet, after all.)
The truth is that current GM Brian MacLellan was a lot like Stan Bowman in Chicago. He’s done masterful work in taking the Capitals to the next level, but it was McPhee who put together the core of this team.
Granted, MacLellan was right there with McPhee much of the time (much like Bowman as Dale Tallon’s apprentice), so you could quibble all day about how to slice up the credit. It’s easiest to break things down by who was actually GM, so let’s go with that.
Ultimately, the building of this team was very much about both men.
Let’s ignore the Petr Bondra era (which produced the franchise’s only Stanley Cup Final run before 2018) and skip to the Capitals selecting Ovechkin with the top pick of the 2004 NHL Draft.
From that point on, McPhee constructed the core almost exclusively through strong selections. Ponder the crucial choices McPhee made, with many of them coming from outside the high-end, “no-brainer” range of picks. Scroll for some additional interesting picks.
Again, Ovechkin (1st in 2004). They also nabbed once-essential defenseman Mike Green at 29.
The 2008 NHL Draft ended up being key, even though Anton Gustafsson (21st overall) didn’t pan out. Washington selected John Carlson with their other first-rounder (27th) and Braden Holtby in the fourth round (93rd pick). As you can see in “additional interesting picks,” McPhee kept swinging at goalies and hit a home run here.
While MarJo is now with the Devils, the Capitals selected underrated defenseman Dmitry Orlov with their second-round pick (55th overall) in 2009. [Golden Knight Cody Eakin was the 85th pick.]
They made some great picks in 2010, too. McPhee shrugged off “The Russian Problem” and got a huge steal with Evgeny Kuznetsov at 26th. They had more luck with goalies in the fourth round, as strong backup Philipp Grubauer was selected at 112.
The 2012 NHL Draft was maybe McPhee’s most controversial, and not just because that’s when he took Forsberg – who fell strangely that day – at 11. Tom Wilson also went at the 16th spot. Some decent supporting cast members were also selected in Chandler Stephenson (77th) and Christian Djoos (195).
Additional interesting picks: Mike Green at 29th in 2004; Michal Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov, and Mathieu Perreault in 2006; Karl Alzner went fifth in 2007; Marcus Johansson selected 24th in 2009.
As you can see from that bulleted list, McPhee drafted most of the biggest names on this roster.
The Capitals’ playoff misfortune doesn’t just bring unwarranted abuse to players like Alex Ovechkin; it also obscures Washington’s knack for finding serious talent in the first round, even when they don’t have high picks. Players like Kuznetsov, Burakovsky, Carlson, Holtby, and Grubauer are allowing the Caps to sustain their success. It’s a lot like the Blackhawks unearthing nice later-round players like Brandon Saad and Ryan Hartman.
MacLellan brings it to the next level
As great as McPhee’s body of work actually looks, there’s no denying that things were starting to crumble when he was fired in 2014.
One area of need was behind the bench, as the Capitals were a real mess once things fell apart with Bruce Boudreau. The team also stumbled a bit in net before Holtby emerged as the start workhorse he is today.
MacLellan didn’t put together the core, yet he’s responsible for really tying the room together.
While people will mention that Barry Trotz’s future was in doubt as recently as his much-discussed handshake conversation with John Tortorella, there’s little point in denying that Trotz was a great hire. He helped bring a great defensive system to Washington, stopped messing around with Ovechkin’s position and reversed the malaise with Holtby. And now he’s hot lapping to happiness.
While McPhee laid down the foundation through fantastic drafting, MacLellan has supplemented that work by making some strong moves via trades and free agency.
In some cases, the most important signings were ones Mac didn’t make. Lesser executives would have paid too much to keep a one-dimensional blueliner like Karl Alzner, but the Capitals had the courage to let him walk. (All but the most stubborn old-school types in Montreal would probably agree that the Canadiens regret signing him.) Washington allowed Kevin Shattenkirk to leave despite all the sunk costs in acquiring him at the 2017 trade deadline.
T.J. Oshie‘s signing might not age well, yet it should be acknowledged that, with Ovechkin already at 33, the Capitals realize that their best chances are still in the present.
Not every move was deft. The Capitals can spin it anyway they want it, but Brooks Orpik‘s $5.5 million cap hit limits choices and probably forced useful (if crestfallen) players like Marcus Johansson out. We’ll also need to wait and see if Washington was right in waiting things out with Carlson, a pending UFA.
Still, the good outweighs the bad, especially if you ignore hindsight and realize that the Capitals were right in swinging for the fences with the Shattenkirk move.
Now that the hangover passed
Yes, this deep run was unlikely, or at least oddly timed after the best window for success seemingly passed. Still, this team won its division (again) and was built with the elements you’d expect a championship team to possess:
A true superstar in Alex Ovechkin, who sure looks like he’s still in or near his prime.
Two great centers in Kuznetsov and Backstrom.
A Vezina-caliber goalie in Holtby, even if he experienced rare struggles before rebounding during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
John Carlson, a deadly scorer on defense.
The sorely underrated shutdown pairing in Matt Niskanen (MacLellan’s best addition, and one of his first) and Dmitry Orlov.
Some very nice young wingers in Burakovsky (McPhee’s last first-rounder) and Jakub Vrana (MacLellan’s original first-rounder).
That coveted third-line center in Lars Eller, one of MacLellan’s better trades.
Following all of the losses from that “Stanley Cup hangover without the Stanley Cup,” the Capitals still boast a lot of the ingredients you’d put together to get that hangover from actually drinking from the Stanley Cup.
It’s amusing that the 2018 Stanley Cup Final is, in some ways, McPhee’s old baby versus his new one.
MacLellan deserves ample credit for making the Capitals even better once he was promoted from assistant GM. We’ve seen instances where a team falls out of contention as stars age and executives leave. Instead, the Capitals won two consecutive Presidents’ Trophies and then merely settled for another division title and a run to the championship round since MacLellan took over. They’ve made the playoffs every year since 2013-14, the campaign that cost McPhee his job.
Capitals – Golden Knights offers a slew of great storylines, and they’re not only limited to Marc-Andre Fleury winning after being exposed to the expansion draft or Ovechkin’s ultimate redemption.
If you want a great example of a student trying to surpass his teacher, then MacLellan’s Capitals against McPhee’s Golden Knights is about as good as it gets in the NHL.
Just don’t forget that McPhee did a lot of the work for Washington, too.