227 days after its franchise’s first ever regular season game, the Vegas Golden Knights are going to the Stanley Cup Final. Sunday afternoon, the Golden Knights defeated the Winnipeg Jets 2-1 at MTS Centre, becoming the third franchise in NHL history to play for a championship in its inaugural season, joining the Toronto Arenas in 1918 and St. Louis Blues in 1968.
The victory also continues a redemption story for former Capitals general manager George McPhee and the Knights’ first pairing defenseman Nate Schmidt — a frequent scratch of Barry Trotz despite numbers that suggested he was a top-tier NHL D-man.
“I just thought we did a great job of moving our feet,” Schmidt said of the team’s series win to Hockey Night In Canada’s Scott Oake. “I thought we did an unbelievable job relying on our goaltender to make a lot of big saves. I think our defense did a really great job the last couple games just making sure we moved our feet and just made it hard to enter our zone with speed. I thought we did a really good job of making sure that we made it tough on them. There were no clean plays all over the ice.”
At the end of Game Five, Schmidt was the first player to hug the team’s victorious goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury, who technically will be going for a three-peat.
Schmidt eventually rested his head on Fleury’s shoulder in a tender moment.
McPhee, sitting in the luxury box, looked on in terror during the Jets’ final scoring chance before letting out a big smile.
The Golden Knights were composed of 20 regular players who were deemed expendable by the rest of the NHL. They needed only five games to dispose of the Jets, who accumulated 114 standings points in the regular season. Vegas needed just 15 games total to get through three Western Conference teams. The Gerard Gallant-led bunch swept the Los Angeles Kings in the first round and defeated the San Jose Sharks in six games.
Schmidt struggled to explain the magic of the Golden Knights, who have been defying expectations all season long.
“I don’t know! I’ve got to ask you ‘What the heck?’ I don’t know think we would have been able to put this on paper to begin the year,” Schmidt said. “Man, I’d bleed for these guys. I love them. We have a great group and you know what? We just believe in ourself. That’s been the key to this thing. Everyone trusts each other in this room. Everyone wants to go to battle for each other and that’s really it right there.”
Each member of the Golden Knights had a different road to Nevada, but for nearly every player, coach, and GM, there was a moment of pain or doubt in a past organization that led them here.
For general manager George McPhee, his career in management could have potentially been over after a disasterous 2013-14 season. After taking the Vancouver Canucks to the Stanley Cup Final during the 1993–94 season, McPhee did so in Washington during his first year (1997-98). The Capitals ultimately were swept by the Detroit Red Wings, but McPhee’s trade acquisitions down the stretch pushed the team further than it had ever gone before.
After subsequent veteran teams washed out with trade acquisition Jaromir Jagr, McPhee rebuilt the Capitals after the 2004 lockout, creating a winner for over a decade revolving around first-line forwards Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. McPhee’s 2009-10 Capitals would win the Presidents’ Trophy as the regular season’s best team. But after being the team’s GM for 17 years, McPhee could not get the team over the hump and was let go along with Adam Oates after missing the postseason in 2014.
“It’s not an easy process,” McPhee said to Sportsnet about being dismissed in Washington. “But it is, in the end, a healthy process. You are more complete as a person when you go through it. In a lot of ways, it’s healthy because you now have time to do things that you’ve never done before, which is the advice Cliff Fletcher provided. He called after I was fired and said: ‘You’re going to get back in the game, so go do the things you never could while you were in the game.’ And he was absolutely right. Family things. Family trips, kids’ events, things you couldn’t do before. But on the other side, there is an angst that’s always there. You feel you have a lot to offer and could really help a team, but you wonder if that will happen again. The game is going younger, including in management. Teams are going with more analytics guys and you wonder if they’ll go right by the veteran guys. You just don’t know.”
Meanwhile, during Schmidt’s final season in Washington, he was a healthy scratch over 20 times. After the Caps landed Kevin Shattenkirk at the trade deadline, Trotz called Schmidt the team’s “7D” heading into the playoffs. It took an injury to Karl Alzner to get the sidelined Schmidt into the postseason lineup. During the proceeding offseason, general manager Brian MacLellan, McPhee’s former assistant GM, said in interviews that he planned for Nate to join the second pairing for the 2017-18 season. Instead, Schmidt was selected in the expansion draft by McPhee – an undrafted player that GMGM signed in Washington as a college free agent in 2013.
Schmidt emerged as the Golden Knights best pivot during the regular season. During the 2018 playoffs, the Minnesota native played 24:52 per game, most among all Golden Knights players. League-wide, Schmidt trailed only defensemen John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, and Victor Hedman in total ice time.
This year, for the first time in the Alex Ovechkin era, the Capitals advanced to the Eastern Conference Final. After taking a 2-0 series lead, the Capitals have lost three straight and could be eliminated Monday night during Game Six. Schmidt hopes, however, that the Capitals can win the final two games. He wants the opportunity to vanquish the team that never quite believed in him.
“You know what? That’d be a real treat,” Schmidt said. “We’ll see what happens in that series. It just goes to show you a lot of guys have come a long ways in order to make ourselves… this team. It’s a great group. I love the story that the guys have. Guys have been able to rise above and make sure to put themselves in this position.”
After the game, Golden Knights alternate captain Deryk Engelland posed with the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl and opted to pick it up – a no-no for some teams in the past who believed the only trophy worth celebrating is the Stanley Cup.
Viva Las Vegas 🙌🤩 pic.twitter.com/lZErAh2sIT
— Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) May 20, 2018
In the Vegas locker room, the Golden Knights posed with Western Conference champions trophy.
— Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) May 20, 2018
Judging by Schmidt’s big smile in the front row, the moment was almost as good as it gets.
Special note: Fanatics is currently offering free shipping on Vegas Golden Knights orders over $30 (Code: KNIGHTS30) and 20 percent off all orders (including Capitals merch) until midnight Sunday (Code: SUNDAY20). You can buy a Nate Schmidt jersey here (which was sold out earlier in the year) or rock VGK Western Conference Champion gear.
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