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How Could It Have Ended This Way?

 

 

tom-wilson-cup-lift
Trigger Warning: Tom Wilson is a Stanley Cup Champion

I wanted to post this immediately after the Washington Capitals won their first ever Stanley Cup Championship in 44 years of their franchise’s existence over the Vegas Golden Knights in a historic, unbelievable inaugural season, but there were two distinct reasons for me to hold off on doing so:

  1. This is primarily a Vegas Golden Knights blog and the wounds were still fresh, and…
  2. I hadn’t written it yet and was too busy celebrating to start.

Well, I feel the initial shock for both fanbases has subsided enough to actually deliver some commentary on the matter. Vegas fans, trust me on this. This article is going to be quite complimentary to the Golden Knights. I’m sure the last person you want to hear from now is a lifelong Caps fan, but stay with me. It gets better.

But before it gets better, I’m going to get all the trash-talking out of my system. And then after I’m done with that, I’ll get to praising the Golden Knights’ efforts. I promise.

Jokes I’ve been saving up:

  • How the hell were you expecting the Golden Knights to win the Stanley Cup if Game of Thrones hadn’t done it first?
  • Speaking of Game of Thrones, I see you kept up the tradition of ripping off everything from that show, such as having your protagonists get within arm’s reach of success only to unceremoniously kill them off and break your audience’s heart.
  • Are they still planning on making that movie about the Vegas Golden Knights’ inaugural season? Because as a Caps fan, I’ll watch the hell out of that flick!
  • I’d like to thank Vegas for taking the GM George McPhee curse with him.
  • By all means, keep your 45-minute dinner theater pre-game shows where you use fake trebuchets and prop swords to simulate cracking giant holes in the ice. It’s perfectly indicative of the actual quality of your ice.
  • Those LARPers you got to dress up as Caps fans and fight your ice dancing knight dive even more blatantly than James Neal!
  • The greatest magician in Vegas is Gerard Gallant. He made your leads, your speed, and Ryan Reaves disappear.
  • Oh, what’s that? The pucks just won’t go in? The puck luck isn’t there? The PDO gods hate you? “Welcome to the damn club!” said the LA Kings, San Jose Sharks, Winnipeg Jets, and Jakub Vrana.

 

If you’re still here, I commend you for having thick skin and being able to laugh at yourself without ragequitting. You’re my kind of fan.

Now on to the compliments.

With or without the Cup, the Vegas Golden Knights pulled off the impossible every step of the way. Both the team and the community defied everyone who doubted them. Starting at the beginning when you were even awarded a franchise. “How the hell do you expect to build a hockey town in the desert?” said the same people who apparently forgot that the NHL moved an established Canadian franchise to Phoenix, Arizona, or that the 1st overall draft pick of 2016 came out of Scottsdale. And yet, you built a fanbase so enthusiastic and supportive that franchises with decades of history and success envy you. Please, PLEASE continue to do so, no matter what the 2018-2019 season looks like. Fair-weather fans exist in all sports and for all teams, but a successful team is not defined by win percentages, records, trophies, or championships. It’s measured by how well it can weather adversity and frustration. Every sports team will have slumps. Every sports team will have crippling disappointment. Every sports fan will experience heartache. But a franchise that can push through that, and a fanbase that can stay loyal even during long stretches of failure, will leave a mark on history that will last far longer than any fair-weather dynasty. You have a hockey town in your grasp, but it’s not secured, yet. It’s up to you, the fans, to secure it and hold on to it. We only have a sample of one season to go on. Becoming a hockey town takes effort on the community’s part, not just the team. Don’t let them down, and they won’t let you down.

The next logical step is to talk about how the Vegas Golden Knights came together to reach out and support the Las Vegas community in response to the Mandalay Bay massacre, and helping the city heal after one of the worst tragedies in the country since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But there’s nothing I can write about it that you haven’t seen and felt and understood firsthand better than I can pretend to. I have a tangential connection to the tragedy, but I’m not going to pretend it compares to that which was experienced by Las Vegans themselves. All I can say is that the actions of the Vegas Golden Knights in the aftermath should solidify their place in the city for many, many seasons to come, and not just be relegated to a single knock-out of a season. But of course, you know that better than I do.

And then the season itself. Not only did the Vegas Golden Knights come out strong in their first year against the rest of the NHL, in complete defiance of expectations, but they set the bar for every subsequent expansion team so high that it’s just downright unfair. Being practically undefeated on home ice? The rest of us should be so lucky. Reigning victorious over so many of the very teams your roster had been ripped from? That had to feel good. The Knights got to prove themselves to everyone else in the league that undervalued them or cast them off for salary cap space. And they got to do it in what should have rationally been a tank year. The Knights were supposed to suck and nobody would judge them for it. They excelled. Not only did they excel, they made the damn playoffs. In their first year.

Everyone expected them to get eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. They swept the Kings. While the Kings had a human brick wall by the name of Jonathon Quick in the net. Everyone expected them to lose in the second round of the playoffs. The beat a predicted Cup contender by the way of the San Jose Sharks. Nobody, and I mean nobody, expected the Knights to beat the Winnipeg Jets, a team that should literally not change a damn thing for next year if they want to win the Stanley Cup in 2019, and the Knights beat them in five games.

The Knights made the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural year. And not just in a league of 12 teams, six of which being newborn expansion teams like the St. Louis Blues did in 1967. The Knights did it in a league of 31 franchises, full of powerhouse teams lined with generational talent. It was such a stunning upset that the same analysts, commentators, and vocal hockey fans who laughed at Vegas after seeing the expansion draft began claiming that the NHL had rigged the expansion draft in Vegas’s favor, specifically right after the Knights beat the complainer’s team of choice. The only thing more incredulous than the Vegas Golden Knights’ success in the playoffs were the degree of sour grapes among the defeated. Congratulations, Vegas. You triggered the entire Western Conference.

Which leads us to the sobering end. How? How, with that kind of season, that kind of momentum, that kind of feel-good, storybook defiance that proved everyone wrong, did it end with a Gentleman’s Sweep defeat in the Final?

To be put it bluntly, it wasn’t because you weren’t good enough. It wasn’t because you made mistakes. It wasn’t because you ran out of gas. It wasn’t because the calls or the bounces didn’t go your way, as hard as that is to hear. It’s because you were going up against the Capitals.

I don’t mean that in a cocky, Penguins Yinzer-ish, fanboy, my-team-is-just-the-best-team-ever-and-no-one-can-beat-them way, either. Generally speaking, going up against the Caps in the post-season is anything but a death-knell. But it’s the fact that I’m mentioning the Capitals and the Stanley Cup Final in the same context.

Not all Vegas fans can relate to a history of heartache and disappointment. I mean, obviously. I’ll grant that many of you are long-time hockey fans from Vegas who were waiting for a hometown team, but for those of you who just became hockey fans a year ago, I’ll try to briefly explain the significance of a Washington Capitals Stanley Cup Final: The Caps have such a solid history of failing in the post-season, specifically the second round, specifically against the Penguins, specifically with Fleury in net, that it became a meme.

No-Cups-Penguins-Capitals
They slayed the demons and the meme-ons.

Year after year after year, the Caps would belt out an unbelievably successful regular season, many times with the President’s Trophy in hand, only to lose in the playoffs, no further than the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. Whether it be the Flyers, the Rangers, or most frustratingly, the Penguins. They would come so close. They would push the Penguins to Game 7. They would outplay them to the point that it boggled the mind that the Caps didn’t SWEEP the Penguins, only to lose in soul-crushing fashion; in large part thanks to Marc-Andre Fleury.

But then, in the same year that the Vegas Golden Knights decided to make an unstoppable run through the playoffs, the Caps did it.

There’s a reason that Capitals radio announcer John Walton sounds several orders of magnitude more ecstatic in his calling of a Capitals victory in a second round they were leading 3-2 than he does when calling a third round Game 7 victory over the #1 team in the league. There’s a reason he had more passion in calling Evgeny Kuznetsov’s game-winning, series-clinching overtime goal than he did in calling the Capitals the Stanley Cup Champions. To Caps fans everywhere, the phrase “The demons have been exorcised!” means so much more to them than “The Washington Capitals are the Stanley Cup Champions!” because it means all that and more.

Because despite not uttering the words for irrational, subconscious fear of jinxing their team, I and all my fellow Caps fans knew that as soon as the Caps clinched the series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, that was when the Capitals won the Cup.

There was no stopping them.

They exorcised literally every demon they could possibly exorcise. They made it passed the second round. They did it against Pittsburgh, with Crosby and Malkin. The killed the memes. And they would have to beat Marc-Andre Fleury in net to earn the Stanley Cup. Vegas’s story this year was one of defying the odds. Washington’s story was one of redemption. After that second round, there was a drive, a fire, an atavistic, primal relentlessness in each and every one of the Washington Capitals players, exemplified most visibly by team Captain Alexander Ovechkin, to go all the way.

There’s a longstanding superstition against touching the Conference Championship trophies for fear that if you touch it, you’ll never touch the Stanley Cup: The trophy that truly matters. After defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, Alex Ovechkin didn’t even hesitate. He accepted the Prince of Wales trophy without any reservation in his voice or action. It was a statement to all who could witness it. “There are no more curses. There are no more jinxes. This is the year we win it all.” And while it’s easier to say as a Caps fan than it is to hear as a Vegas fan, there was just no way the Caps weren’t going to finish it.

It wasn’t that you weren’t good enough. You were just in our way.

Both the Vegas Golden Knights and the Washington Capitals went into the Stanley Cup Final as underdogs. On the surface, that doesn’t make any sense. You can’t have two underdogs. But they were underdogs for different reasons. Nobody expected the Vegas Golden Knights to be good, let alone great. But nobody expected the Washington Capitals to win.

And both teams proved everyone wrong.

This isn’t how the story ended, Vegas. This is just how it began. And as I promised at the beginning of this article, it will get better.

——–

Images sourced from @tom_wilso and salty Penguins fans

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