Stanley Cup Finals matchup filled with drama

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News
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Detroit — Has there been a Stanley Cup Final with so many tantalizing story lines?

Rarely has the NHL had an intriguing match-up, with Washington and the expansion Vegas Golden Knights facing each other to decide who’ll take home the Stanley Cup.

Whether it’s the Golden Knights, who’ve inexplicably reached this stage of the season, to the determination of Capitals star Alex Ovechkin – making his first appearance in The Finals — those have largely been the early talking points.

But there are so many other ones.

Goaltenders Braden Holtby (Washington) and Vegas’ Marc-Andre Fleury have been outstanding through the playoffs with Fleury, in particular, a leading contender for playoff MVP.

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The front office work of general manager George McPhee is on full display in this series.

McPhee was GM of the Capitals for 17 years until being fired in 2014 – and landing with the expansion Golden Knights in 2016.

McPhee’s fingerprints are all over both rosters.

Here is a look at some of the dominant themes people will be talking about beginning with Monday’s Game 1 in Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena.

Viva Las Vegas

Let’s get this straight, and out of the way.

Nobody, no analyst, fan, hockey executive or player, anyone, expected the Golden Knights to be here in the Stanley Cup Finals.

“This team is built of three different components: Character, coachability and speed, and when you watch them play, every one of those characteristics stands out,” said Pierre McGuire, NBC analyst, during a teleconference previewing the series. “This might be one of the better-skill finals and speed finals we have seen in a long time.

“I was around that team when they played against Winnipeg (in the Western Conference Finals) in Winnipeg, and the one thing that was really apparent, they are resilient, much like Washington and they are tired of people telling them that they are no good and they are Cinderella.

“They are not Cinderella. They are for real.”

Alex The Great

Ovechkin, 32, and his 13th NHL season, skated past the second round of the playoffs for the first time this spring.

With 22 points and 12 goals Ovechkin is among the playoff scoring leaders, and his passion and leadership have rarely been more in focus.

“(Ovechkin) is a different player than he was,” said Mike Milbury, NBC analyst. “(It) took him a while to figure this out, but when you hear him talking about, ‘I don’t care who scores, I don’t care what the stats are’; he talked about getting in the shooting lanes, he talked about not wanting to give up chances.

“That’s a new language from him and that’s a new language from the Washington Capitals, and why people are now showing them the respect that they had not earned in previous seasons because they had not earned it.

“They had not bought in then, but they have now and it’s been wonderful to see it evolve.”

McPhee’s magic

Along with his molding of the two rosters, McPhee even has a long relationship with current Capitals GM Brian MacLellan, as the two played collegiately at Bowling Green (they were roommates) and MacLellan was McPhee’s assistant GM.

“George McPhee that really crafted both of these teams,” said Mike Emrick, NBC’s lead announcer. “Brian MacLellan finished off what Washington once was.”

McPhee has been credited with brilliantly taking advantage of the expansion draft in June, and putting together a deep and talented Golden Knights roster.

“Look, the rules are what they are,” said Olczyk of McPhee’s deft moves. “The protection rules are what they are but you look at a lot of the moves, the side deals, the — don’t take this guy, you can have this guy, and then we’ll give you this — all that kind of stuff. He played poker, and he dominated, and there’s no other way around saying it, because look where they are.”

Fleury vs. Holtby

Holtby slumped toward the end of this past regular season, reclaimed his starting job toward the end of Round 1 of the playoffs, and has been brilliant ever since.

Fleury, left unprotected by Pittsburgh in the expansion draft, is playing some of the best hockey of his career.

Milbury was impressed with the way Fleury dealt with the exit in Pittsburgh, the Penguins deciding to go with younger Matt Murray.

“Even while he’s being slid out the door, he’s still helping them to win Stanley Cups, and then he gets a chance to reinvigorate himself in a new franchise and he gobbled it all up,” Milbury said. “It’s great to see. He never seems to do anything but smile. He’s just laughing.

“The other guy (Holtby) is a much more intense competitor. You watch these games in Washington, it’s fascinating to see him do his eyeball exercises before the game on the bench - he’s focused in and he’s a different approach.

“But he’s worked at it, and he’s had the kind of year that sort of mirrors the kind of year that Washington had. It wasn’t always easy, wasn’t always a smooth ride. But he’s fought hard and stayed with it, stayed the course and back-to-back shutouts in the last two games (in the Eastern Conference Finals), he’s proven his mettle.”

Ice chips

This is the sixth Finals where both teams are chasing their 1st Stanley Cup victory. … The Golden Knights and Capitals each earned three series-clinching victories on the road, marking the first time in NHL history that two clubs reached the Final in that fashion. ... Washington has eight road playoff wins this spring. The single-season record is 10.

Stanley Cup Finals

Washington vs. Vegas

Monday: at Vegas, 8 (NBC)

Wednesday: at Vegas, 8 (NBCSN)

Saturday: at Washington, 8 (NBCSN)

Monday, June 4: at Washington, 8 (NBC)

x-Thursday: at Vegas, 8 (NBC)

x-Sunday, June 10: at Washington, 8 (NBC)

x-Wednesday, June 13: at Vegas, 8 (NBC)

x-If necessary

Ted Kulfan’s prediction

Ovechkin appears determined to slay his demons and win his first Stanley Cup. Having picked against Vegas all three rounds, one of these have to be correct. Prediction: Washington in 6.

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