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Knights vs Capitals: The Most Unexpected Stanley Cup Match-up in Hockey History

Aaron Gray

by Aaron Gray in NHL Hockey

Updated Jan 4, 2023 · 3:24 AM PST

Alexander Oveckin Braden Holtby Celebrate Stanley Cup Birth
  • The Golden Knights are favored to win the Stanley Cup in their first year of existence. Can they pull it off? 
  • Can Marc-Andre Fleury continue his magical postseason run?
  • Will Matt Niskanen and Dimitri Orlov continue to be lights out for the Capitals?

After three fantastic rounds of playoff hockey, we’ve reached the final round of the Stanley Cup Finals. The only two teams left in the post-season are the Vegas Golden Knights and the Washington Capitals, two franchises that started the season at incredibly long odds. Believe it or not, it’s the first year expansion franchise in the Vegas Knights that are favored to win the Stanley Cup, by, well, Vegas.

Read on to learn why bookmakers are valuing each team, and check out our Stanley Cup Futures Tracker for a much more detailed look at how odds have ebbed and flowed throughout the duration of the regular season and playoffs.

Is Vegas Really the De Facto Favorite?

They sure are. Backstopped by the greatest goaltending performance of the modern era in Conn Smythe favorite Marc-Andre Fleury, the Vegas Knights look unstoppable. They’ve reached the finals in 15 games (yes, that means they’ve gone 12-3) and allowed a paltry 27 goals in those same 15 games. For reference, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Philadelphia Flyers both allowed 28 goals in the first round alone.

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There isn’t much to say about the Vegas Knights that hasn’t been said already. They have no discernible weakness on their team, and their cohesiveness up and down their lineup is nothing short of stunning. All four lines can score (it was healthy scratch Ryan Reaves who scored the game-winning goal in the 5th and deciding game against Winnipeg).

The Marchessault-Karlsson-Smith line looks deadly as ever, and the top pairing of Mcnabb-Schmidt looks about as dominant as it gets in preventing and creating chances.

When teams are able to actually get through the neutral zone against the Vegas Knights, which isn’t often, they have to stare down Marc-Andre Fleury. As we mentioned above, he isn’t letting in much of anything. Also worth noting is that Vegas, who finished 5th overall in the NHL, has home ice advantage over the Capitals. They’ve been incredible at home, losing only one game at home this entire post-season. Home ice advantage will matter in this series, and that bodes well for Vegas.

Nate Schmidt celebrates a goal in the Second Round vs. the San Jose Sharks.

Against all expectations and common sense, look for the Vegas Golden Knights to hoist the Stanley Cup in two weeks or less. For as much as they love being labeled the “Golden Misfits” and other such self-deprecating nicknames, the reality is that the Knights are now no longer playing to defy their underdog status, they’re playing for every hockey’s player ultimate dream: Lord Stanley’s Cup.

George McPhee’s Outsized Influence On The Stanley Cup Finals:

One thing that isn’t getting enough attention but is indisputably worthy of your attention is the George McPhee connection in this year’s Stanley Cup Finals.

Of course, everyone knows McPhee’s brilliance in constructing a team that’s in the Stanley Cup finals from other team’s rejects and unwanted players. Yes, McPhee received a 4th round draft pick to take Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault. Yes, after he agreed to take David Clarkson’s contract, he got 1st and 2nd round draft picks and William Karlsson. Yes, as long as he didn’t select Jonas Brodin from Minnesota, he received both Alex Tuch and Erik Haula. To put it succinctly, that’s managerial acuity the likes of which is arguably the best in the history of professional sports.

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However, what isn’t as well publicized is that George McPhee played a huge role in building the Washington Capitals in their current form. He was fired in 2014 (despite McPhee’s brilliance in Vegas, trades like Filip Forsberg for Martin Erat are utterly indefensible), and his assistant GM at the time, Brian Maclellan was promoted to the position of GM where he remains today.

Key contributors for the Capitals – Ovechkin, Kuznetzov, Niskanen, Orlov, Holtby, Carlson, and many more – are all McPhee’s acquisitions, either by draft, trade, or free agency. Maclellan has done a wonderful job keeping many of McPhee’s acquisitions through the complexities of the salary cap era and supplementing them with a great support player (TJ Oshie, for example), but in many respects, two teams that McPhee engineered are now facing off in the Stanley Cup final. That’s no small feat.

Another incredible detail about George McPhee’s management is that the goalie coach who he personally fired in 2014, Dave Prior, now works for McPhee in Las Vegas. Prior’s dismissal was considered ill-advised at the time (it was done to placate the Capitals head coach at the time, Adam Oates) and many have credited Braden Holtby’s incredible success and 2016 Vezina trophy to the lasting influence of Prior’s teachings.

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McPhee decided to swallow his pride and reunite with Dave Prior in Vegas, and many are attributing Marc-Andre Fleury’s amazing season and historic playoff run to the adjustments that Dave Prior made to his game. McPhee’s influence on his team’s success goes far beyond simply the players he’s assembled.

What About The Capitals?

The best first-year professional sports franchise of all time in Vegas (51-24-7) is facing off against the team that in 1980, had the worst inaugural season of all time in 1974-1975 (8-67-5). Yes, the Washington Capitals started out that bad.

It’s not like the Capitals faithful were treated to some karmic retribution after that dismal first season either. 44 years after the franchise’s inception, the Capitals have never won a game in the Stanley Cup Finals, and haven’t made the conference finals since 1998.

The Capitals have had such comically abysmal playoff runs that this year was the first time in franchise history that they were able to win a single playoff game after going up 2-0 in a series, heading home.

Ten times before, the Capitals had gone up 2-0 and then proceeded to lose four straight. That ended in Game 6 of their series vs. Tampa Bay, where they snuffed out the Lightning in an utterly dominant fashion.

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Things have been different this post-season for the capitals. Despite losing a bevy of key players in the offseason, the Capitals have been a team on a mission this year.

Many in the hockey media believe the underdog status of the Capitals through the first three rounds of the playoffs has played to their favour, and we tend to agree.

We still think Vegas is the rightful favorite, but there’s a lot to like about the Washington Capitals. Not only is their speedy, high-octane offense getting it done in all situations, but their top defense pairing of Matt Niskanen and Dimitri Orlov has been lights out. While their series against the heavily favorited Tampa Bay Lightning went the distance, its no exaggeration to say that Washington was the better team in each of the seven games.

We think the Capitals will push this series to 6, and maybe 7, but it’ll be too much to ask them to beat the Knights, especially with Devante Smith Pelly and Brooks Orpik questionable for the first game of the series.

One thing’s for sure, and that’s that the 2018 finals will be historic, with many amazing storylines to follow.

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