Vegas awaits East winner in Stanley Cup Final

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly presents Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Deryk Engelland (5) with the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl after defeating the Winnipeg Jets in the Western Conference Final of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Bell MTS Centre. Mandatory Credit: Terrence Lee-USA TODAY SportsLess than a year ago the hockey world was awaiting the arrival of the Vegas Golden Knights. Now the Golden Knights are the ones waiting for an opponent in the Stanley Cup Final. Vegas continued its improbable playoff run by defeating the Winnipeg Jets in five games, leaving the expansion team with a week to prepare for what could be one of the most historic NHL finals of all time.

The Golden Knights weren’t supposed to make the playoffs in their inaugural season, and once they did, there was little belief they would survive for three rounds. But Vegas built its entire season around defying expectations, playing with a fearlessness that opponents can’t seem to match. The Golden Knights have nothing to lose, no reputation to uphold, and that weightlessness is reflected in the speed of their game, which overwhelmed the Los Angeles Kings, the San Jose Sharks, and the Jets. No player embodies that overwhelming speed more than Jonathan Marchessault, who leads Vegas with 18 points and routinely puts defenders on their heels with his shifty moves.

But Vegas has yet to face a challenge as unique as their two possible opponents from the Eastern Conference Final, which is going to Game 7 on Wednesday. The Tampa Bay Lightning have speed throughout their lineup just like the Golden Knights, but they also have far more offensive firepower on both offense and defense, as well as a goaltender capable of stealing games in Andrei Vasilevskiy. Vegas has been lauded for its depth, but the Lightning can roll four scoring lines and have a frighteningly efficient power play with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov blasting one-timers.

The Washington Capitals, who forced Game 7 with a win on Monday, are captained by one of the greatest goal-scoring talents of all time in Alex Ovechkin, who would easily be the toughest test of the playoffs for the Golden Knights’ defense. Facing the Capitals in the Cup final would have the added wrinkle of Vegas general manager George McPhee facing the team that fired him in 2014. The Golden Knights are a team filled with castoffs, and McPhee was the first, paying the price for years of playoff futility in Washington. It took 20 years for the Capitals to get back to the Eastern Conference Final in search of the franchise’s first Cup, while Vegas is four wins away from never having to feel that same suffering.