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The NHL’s Breath of Fresh Air

The Capitals and Golden Knights are facing off in a Stanley Cup final that pits a team with no history against a franchise with too much. And given everything that’s led to this matchup, there’s no way we’re appreciating it enough.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The hockey world is small enough and in such a constant state of upheaval that coaches, general managers, and players frequently face their former teams—and, by existential extension, their past selves. But for Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee, the situation he finds himself facing is more striking than usual, an absurdist live broadcast of This Is Your Life.

McPhee was the general manager of the Capitals for 16 seasons, from 1997 to 2014, enough time to shape long-term policy and draft a true game changer. Alex Ovechkin became McPhee’s superstar player and, briefly, tenant; the young Russian lived in the McPhee household during his rookie season, playing floor hockey in the basement with McPhee’s then-young son, Graham.

“Wow, time flies!!!” wrote Graham, now a 19-year-old on the Boston College hockey team and an Edmonton Oilers prospect, on an Instagram photo of him and Ovechkin in December. “Great seeing my childhood role model and hero tonight! Can’t believe it’s been 12 years!” Graham’s social media post was tagged to T-Mobile Arena, the venue on the Las Vegas strip that opened in 2016 and is home to the Vegas Golden Knights, an expansion team that George McPhee personally put together less than a year ago. (You could say that, once again, he took in a rookie.)

Now, McPhee is at the helm of the NHL’s most unexpectedly successful organization, while Ovechkin—hockey’s biggest constant and one of the rare players who hasn’t ever played against a former NHL team—is leading a Capitals squad that is finally living up to longtime expectations. This isn’t the Stanley Cup matchup that anyone—including, I have to imagine, McPhee himself—would have ever predicted going into the season. But that’s also what makes it a beauty. Whether the trophy is lifted by a longtime veteran or an upstart organization (or, in the case of someone like 36-year-old Deryk Engelland, by a longtime veteran currently playing on an upstart organization), it will, in some way, be a breath of fresh air for the NHL.

It’s pretty much impossible to write about the Golden Knights without throwing in gratuitous Vegas references; this is partly because the Golden Knights don’t have years of tortured history to contextualize and reckon with, and partly because both industries—gambling and sports—involve the construction of entire buildings, organizations, and empires on a shaky foundation of luck. But it’s also because the Golden Knights’ trajectory this season has simply fit the image of the Vegas first-timer riding a ridiculous, giddy winning streak.

One of Vegas’s top forwards, Jonathan Marchessault, has taken to driving a comped tricked-out gold Lamborghini to games; it doesn’t get more “suddenly a high roller” than that. Marchessault’s top line—which includes Reilly Smith, his former Florida Panthers teammate, and William Karlsson—has combined for 47 points this postseason; the only bummer about this trio is that no one thought to give them the collective line name “House Money.”

Karlsson’s year, in particular, has had the feel of the montage scene from a rags-to-riches sports film. In his last two seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Karlsson was a 20- and 25-point scorer. This year, he contributed 78 points. Can’t you just picture the stock footage of slot machines coming up lucky sevens interspersed with shots of Karlsson doing workouts where he, like, sprints up the down escalator in some gilded casino lobby?

And then there’s Marc-Andre Fleury, whose storyline this season seems to have been pulled from a heist movie in which the Knights goaltender plays the role of a thought-to-be washed-up former big name in the biz who agrees to take on one final job.

Fleury’s very presence on the Golden Knights is indicative of both how the team was built and how it has succeeded. Before the expansion draft last summer, the Penguins, not wanting Vegas to take one of their young prospects and hoping to get rid of Fleury’s hefty contract, enticed the Golden Knights to take him by throwing in a second-round draft pick. Vegas’s roster has a number of players, including Smith and Erik Haula, who were acquired in this manner. McPhee made it a point to use the expansion draft as only the starting point of negotiations with other NHL teams. Rather than declare “I’m taking Player B,” McPhee asked his colleagues what they’d give him not to poach Player A, a strategy that could be the premise of an essay question on a behavioral finance exam.

At 33 years old, Fleury has turned in the best season of his decorated career. In the playoffs, he’s delivered four shutouts and posted a .947 save percentage. And last week, when the Golden Knights defeated the Winnipeg Jets in five games, capping a relatively unbothered romp through the Western Conference, Fleury exhibited an important act of leadership.

Some hockey teams choose—out of a severe and self-inflicted sense of decorum—to treat the conference trophies like lava when they are presented to the winners on the ice, the idea being that there is only one true Cup worth lifting. Other teams, like Fleury’s former team, the Penguins, allow themselves to touch the cold metal and feel fleeting pride and joy. Engelland, with his local ties and his emotional leadership following the deadly shooting in Las Vegas last fall, became the team’s de facto captain, and when he looked to Fleury for counsel on what to do with the Campbell Bowl, the goalie told him to go ahead and grab it. It was the right call: There was no need to snub the trophy out of some act-like-you’ve-been-there-before superstition. Vegas, after all, hasn’t been there before—that’s the whole point.

The Washington Capitals chose to lift up their conference trophy, too. When they beat the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final, Ovechkin was so amped that he looked ready to skate the damn thing around the entire circumference of the rink, but his teammate, Brooks Orpik, harshed his buzz and told him to put it back down. Such exuberance is classic Ovechkin: After the Capitals defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins earlier this month—finally advancing past the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 1998—he merrily cursed in a live TV interview with NBC’s Pierre McGuire.

It’s been 12 years, as Graham McPhee reminded us, since Ovechkin was a rookie living with the McPhees, working on his English and adjusting to life in the league. Since then, the more things have changed for George McPhee, the more they’ve remained the same for Ovechkin. He has played in just over a thousand regular-season games and scored just over 600 times. Five of the past six seasons, Ovechkin has led the league in goal scoring; only twice in his career has he not led the NHL in total shots. He carries himself with an exuberance that has, for the most part, made him impervious to the weird schoolmarmishness that often dictates the rest of the league. And more importantly, he has instilled these values on another of the Capitals’ most important players, his Russian countryman Evgeny Kuznetsov.

Kuznetsov was drafted in the first round in 2010, during the McPhee era, and from his earliest days in Washington has been getting noogied under Ovechkin’s wing. This year Kuznetsov—who finished second to Ovechkin on the team in scoring—has flaunted his own plumage: His chosen goal celebration lately has been a “bird-of-prey” arm flap that he stole from a FIFA video game and that he has said is a favorite of his daughter. He scored 83 points this season, his highest total yet, and he added another 24 in the playoffs, including the series-winning overtime goal against the Penguins. And in the Eastern Conference finals, he tallied at least one point in every game.

But no matter how closely Ovechkin works with Kuznetsov and how fondly he feels about his protégé, to all the aging Caps heads out there, the team’s most important duo—the one that defined the McPhee era—has always been Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. “When you’ve been together for a while, and you travel together, you play together, you do everything for the most part together,” said Caps coach Barry Trotz earlier this season about the two players. “It’s no different than a married couple.” Backstrom scored 21 goals this year and added 50 assists. He missed some of the postseason with an injury but returned during the Tampa series and scored an empty netter to seal the win in Game 7.

The Capitals team has also been anchored by defensemen John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov, and has been both weathering and benefiting from the rising infamy of widely-despised pest-forcer Tom Wilson, who was suspended for three games against the Penguins for breaking Zach Aston-Reese’s jaw with his shoulder. And just as Fleury has given the Golden Knights the proverbial hot glove this postseason, goaltender Braden Holtby has demonstrated why he was the Vezina winner in 2016 and the runner-up last year.

Unlike Fleury, Holtby hasn’t been putting on such a show since last fall; his save percentage was a mediocre .907 this season and he was, at one point, the backup option behind Philipp Grubauer. But in the Caps’ grueling series against the Lightning, he made 53 saves on 53 shots in Games 6 and 7, and after Holtby’s Game 7 shutout, he shared a tender broment with Ovechkin.

“I’m kind of emotional,” Ovechkin said. “It’s hard to explain what I feel.”

Holtby just shook his head and said, “You’re doing great, babe.”

Once upon a time, McPhee spent his days figuring out how to build around Ovechkin and how to defeat the Pittsburgh Penguins’ core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Fleury. Now, in a major role reversal, he finds himself allied with Fleury and game-planning against his former superstar. If McPhee’s tenure in Washington was defined by high hopes and annual disappointment, his time in Vegas has been almost comically the opposite—a sudden winning hand.

The brand-new Golden Knights have taken advantage of being a team without a past, establishing their own appropriately tacky and outsized traditions, from their Lite-Brite drum line to the on-ice cosplay that defines their increasingly hyped pre-game program. On the other side, the Capitals have finally overthrown the tyranny of their historical postseason meltdowns to position themselves on the brink of winning a long-awaited Stanley Cup. They are being led by a captain who delights in deadpanning about being well-wished by Putin.

There’s a chance that we aren’t appreciating this matchup enough, that this will all be looked back on as a weird, enchanting time in NHL history that ought to have been cherished more. If this series were to go seven games, the decisive Game 7 would be held in Vegas, hockey’s own version of fight night.

On paper, such a fight card seems lopsided in Washington’s favor. On paper, the Capitals’ roster is better, and the team’s decade-long slog of highs and lows reads as the proper prerequisites for winning the elusive Stanley Cup—all those Game 7 losses must have had a higher purpose, right? On paper, it all looks like the setup for a future Ted Leonsis TED Talk. But nothing about this Golden Knights season has unfolded as it was predicted to on paper, and no one carries around paper in Vegas, anyway. It’s all about the chips.