The road to the Stanley Cup finals is long, difficult and emotionally wrenching, full of revision and personnel attrition, burdened by doubt. Just look at the Alex Ovechkin-era Washington Capitals.
Or, if you can marry good fortune with good planning, the road can be short and thrilling and blessed with newborn charm. Just look at the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.
The dichotomy between these foes is almost comical. It’s like the Capitals and Golden Knights are recreating the poster of the 1988 movie “Twins.” You can figure out which team is Arnold Schwarzenegger and which is Danny DeVito, okay? It’s just crazy to think that these NHL franchises, which both possess George McPhee’s team-building DNA, are from the same league, let alone planet.
They represent two of the most interesting stories in sports: perseverance and precociousness. We’re often fascinated by the determination it requires to withstand disappointment, if not outright failure, and keep learning, fighting and dreaming. It’s a valuable life lesson acted out on many fields of play. And then there is the wow factor of the rapid ascent, the sports figures who succeed long before their supposed time.
To have both tales tussling on the same stage provides the intrigue of this series. The Capitals have been chasing glory for 42 seasons, and this is only their second finals appearance, and 20 years ago, the Detroit Red Wings swept them in this round. The Golden Knights? Beginner’s breakthrough. Their inaugural season has been one and fun. It doesn’t seem fair, especially if you’ve watched the Capitals grind for 13 years with a transcendent star in Ovechkin. And maybe it’s also the most persuasive reason Washington should cherish this championship opportunity.
The presence of upstart Vegas doesn’t diminish the value of Washington’s hard-fought, hard-luck journey. In a strange way, it enhances it. The Capitals have had few breaks and every reason to quit trying, trade Ovechkin, rebuild and do something — anything — else. They have declined, however. They’ve changed. They’ve evolved. They’ve said some difficult goodbyes, such as when they let McPhee go after 17 years in 2014. But the Capitals have continued their painful pursuit.
This run shouldn’t make people whitewash the struggle. If it ends with a championship, it won’t necessarily mean that all those years of coming up short were “worth it,” as many like to theorize breathlessly at the end of long journeys. But if you devote your life to sports — or, really, anything that requires exertion — you must learn the value of struggle, of difficulty, of grit. Viewing it now from a different perspective, the Capitals can appreciate all that they’ve been through.
“Just that it makes you tougher,” right wing T.J. Oshie said. “I think maybe it makes you realize how special it is when it takes you so long to get there. It’s every NHL player’s dream growing up to win the Stanley Cup, but I can’t imagine what it would be like for some of those guys that get to win it in their first couple of years.
“So, for me, I haven’t played a light, easy game at any point in my career. It’s been countless hours, days, months, years of hard work for me personally to get here. And for a lot of these guys, it’s the same thing. So it just makes it that much more meaningful and special, and I’m maybe more mature to the fact that this doesn’t happen every year. Sometimes, you only get a couple of chances or one chance at this.”
Oshie is 31 and a 10-year NHL veteran. He has played the last three seasons in Washington, trusting that he was competing for a true contender and watching the team shrink from the regular season standard-bearer to the Pittsburgh Penguins’ putty in the playoffs. But everything changed this spring, and, finally, Oshie is on a stage that figures to be perfect for him.
Still, he carries with him the tough losses and bitter playoff outcomes that left supporters encouraging him with a familiar sentiment: “You’ll come back better for this.” He has always hated to be forced to listen to those reassuring words.
“I’m a pretty competitive guy, so when I was younger, anytime I lost, it felt like it was kind of the end of the world,” Oshie said. “I don’t handle losses too well. I don’t like ’em very much. It’s kind of still that way, but a lot of those people were right. Unfortunately, sometimes you’ve got to go through that to get your game where you want to go or to mature as a player and then find a way to get there.”
If not for the struggle, the Capitals wouldn’t be the balanced and mentally tough team they have been this postseason. They have survived 19 tense playoff games so far. They could have been defeated in the first round after the Columbus Blue Jackets captured the first two games at Capital One Arena. There were times when it seemed the second-round Pittsburgh series would continue to be Washington’s roadblock. The Capitals almost fell apart against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals. But they didn’t. They have learned from disappointment. The current squad is a healthy combination of veterans who have turned their experiences into a weapon and young players who are oblivious to playoff pressure.
It makes for a hungry team that can compartmentalize its past. It’s far from Washington’s best Ovechkin-led team, but perhaps it is the toughest and most versatile squad. That is often a championship formula.
“The job isn’t done,” center Jay Beagle said. “It’s an opportunity, but you don’t want to let that opportunity slip.”
Ask the 32-year-old Beagle about his 10 seasons in D.C., and he says, “It’s been awesome. To tell you the truth, when you lose in the past, it’s not the goal. It hurts. It’s not easy. It sucks. It’s been a lot of fun, though, too. It’s a pleasure to be a part of. It always has been.”
The story of the Golden Knights and Las Vegas as a major pro market will overwhelm the finals. It’s only appropriate. This might be the most impressive launching of a franchise in American sports history. If it isn’t, it’s not too far down the list. Even the Capitals can appreciate how McPhee built an immediate contender and how important it is for the NHL to see a new franchise thrive so quickly.
But as Washington Coach Barry Trotz said: “There’s two great story lines. We have our own story. Ours is pretty darn good, too.”
It’s a classic theme, perseverance. And it’s good to know that, even when pitted against instant gratification, the value of old-fashioned patience and tenacity still resonates.