As much as the party never stopped outside of T-Mobile Arena, the Las Vegas Golden Knights got to celebrate on The Strip with a Stanley Cup of their own. In Vegas’ inaugural season, a team lifted the Cup in Paradise and it wasn’t the NHL’s 31st franchise. It was the Washington Capitals, who the Golden Knights’ run to hockey’s helm eerily mimicked. Videos of team captain Alex Ovechkin celebrating early into the morning with the Cup and on stage with Tiësto, and inside the fountain at The Bellagio Hotel during the NHL Awards ceremony is exactly how everyone should celebrate a championship. Yet, the lessons the Golden Knights learned five years ago with a few original squad members still employed in Vegas, are eerily evident all over this championship team.
Before we go on the ice, the team’s head coach, Bruce Cassidy, and president of hockey operations George McPhee worked together at a previous stop in, you guessed it, Washington. Cassidy was the team’s head coach when the Capitals attained the No. 1 overall pick they used to draft Ovechkin in 2004, because Cassidy led them to the worst record in the NHL the season before. McPhee fired him and spent 17 years in Washington himself, before not having his contract renewed in 2014 because of the Capitals’ continuous playoff woes. McPhee couldn’t even hack it as the Golden Knights’ inaugural general manager either, stepping down in 2019, despite being handed the tremendous advantage that was the 2017 expansion draft, as opposed to the 2021 version for the Seattle Kraken.
The Capitals’ draft pick in that 2017 expansion haul was Nate Schmidt, who now plays for the Winnipeg Jets. However, someone from the winning locker room in the Capitals-Golden Knights Final was on Vegas’ roster — Chandler Stephenson, making him the first (and only) person to lift the Cup twice in Las Vegas. Stephenson was 24 at the time of the Capitals’ championship, one of the young pieces surrounding the veteran core that helped Washington buck the McPhee trend. While Stephenson was far from the best Capital in the playoffs, learning from Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and John Carlson about the way to close out a title run must’ve been crucial to a team in its sixth season of NHL play. Another repeated trend from the 2018 Stanley Cup Final was it being over in five games, and the victors winning every home game. Washington only needed a pair to beat Vegas, while the Golden Knights won all three times this season in the championship series on home ice.
The comparison of goaltenders makes the resemblance even weirder, with Braden Holtby backstopping those Capitals and Adin Hill starting in net for Vegas. The Canadians were only a year apart during their championship wins and both were in contract years with fan bases torn as to whether either was the long-term solution in net. Both stood on their heads during championship runs and any hockey fan knows if you’ve got a hot goaltender, winning games in the playoffs is so much easier. And nobody shined those two seasons more than Holtby and Hill. Let’s also compare “The Save” to Hill’s sprawling stick-on-puck save this year. Both were in Game 2s, both to the goaltender’s right in the same arena, albeit at different ends of the ice. Holtby’s save of his life was better, as he had less time to react to a weird bounce off the boards and there was less time remaining in the game. Both were Herculean. It’s almost a sign that their team was destined for a championship.
The roster makeup of both franchises was different. Washington relied on its superstars with role players, like Stephenson, stepping up to fill in the cracks to win a title. Vegas was a deeper team with fewer bonafide stars. The Golden Knights were so well-balanced in the playoffs it was a methodical game of pick your poison for four series. The Panthers choose a quicker demise in the form of zero regulation wins in five tries against the Golden Knights. Beyond that, the championship resume for both teams looks familiar. Now the Golden Knights have to retain their head coach through the offseason.