Few championships in the history of sports have pitted opponents as unfamiliar with one another as the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights.
Sure, with Vegas making the Stanley Cup Final in its inaugural season, every team in the league has been unfamiliar with the Golden Knights to a certain degree. Yet coming from a different conference, the Capitals had clashed with the Golden Knights in the regular season fewer times than any of the expansion Cinderella story’s previous playoff opponents. Prior to Game 1, the two teams had played against each other just twice, once in each arena.
That was the extent of the history between the two teams now playing for hockey’s greatest prize. But anyone who watched the their first two clashes in the Stanley Cup Final without this knowledge would have never been able to guess it.
Related: Cup Final for the Capitals, Finally
In sports, familiarity tends to breed contempt. Before teams become rivals, they develop a long, extensive lore of confrontation, controversy, and animosity that eventually transcends generations of players and takes on a higher meaning to the franchises they represent. For the Capitals and Golden Knights, all it took to stoke a hatred just as strong was for the referee to drop the puck with the Stanley Cup on the line.
Wilson and McNabb Exchange Controversial Hits
Game 1 of the playoffs’ final series saw a familiar storyline: a suspect hit from Tom Wilson.
In the third period with the game tied 4-4, after Vegas top-line winger Jonathan Marchessault played the puck at center ice, Wilson blindsided Marchessault. Marchessault remained on the ground for several moments but was able to return to the game without any noteworthy injuries reported.
Though Wilson did not make contact with the head, the late and blindsided nature of the hit had the Golden Knights fuming. Golden Knights defenseman Brayden McNabb got into a scrum with Wilson, while David Perron jumped off the Vegas bench and exchanged blows with Capitals star Alex Ovechkin. Wilson and Perron received matching minor penalties, but Vegas head coach Gerard Gallant said Wilson’s hit deserved a major.
In Game 2, Wilson’s Capitals found themselves on the receiving end of a tension-igniting hit, once again at center ice, and once again on a top-line player: Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov.
#ALLCAPS Evgeny Kuznetsov to the dressing room after this hit from #vegasborn Brayden McNabb.
In other words
Saskatchewan elbow 1, Russian wrist 0.#StanleyCup #StanleyCupFinal #Game2 pic.twitter.com/vxw39WGYfV
— SiriusXM NHL Network Radio (@SiriusXMNHL) May 31, 2018
In a way, McNabb’s hit was the reverse of Wilson’s. Though the hit was on time, McNabb launched upward and made contact with his elbow. The hit did not elicit an immediate reaction as the Wilson hit did, but that does not mean the Capitals believed it to be clean. Capitals head coach Barry Trotz called the hit “questionable” according to TSN’s Frank Seravalli. Interestingly, Isabelle Khurshudyan of the Washington Post reported that Marchessault defended McNabb after the game, saying, “At least [Kuznetsov] had the puck,” likely a backhanded jab at Wilson’s hit in Game 1.
Kuznetsov did not return to the game, and his status for Game 3 is currently unknown.
Capitals and Golden Knights Taking Angry Penalties
The referees largely swallowed their whistles in Game 1. The game was extremely physical and there was plenty of action after the whistle from both teams, but apart from the Wilson and Perron penalties, the extracurricular activities did not result in a parade to the penalty box.
That was not the case in Game 2. The uptick in penalty calls may have been a product of the referees sensing the growing animosity between the two teams and attempting to prevent it from reaching a breaking point.
Regardless of the mentality of the referees, many of the penalties were either retaliatory or downright aggressive, rather than restraining fouls like hooking and slashing or simple mistakes like too many men on the ice.
Even at key moments in the game, players were having a difficult time keeping their emotions in check. With Vegas down two goals in the second period, Golden Knights winger Ryan Reeves struck Wilson in the face with his glove in a battle in front of the net. Later on, Vegas trimmed the lead to one after Capitals winger T.J. Oshie put the team on the power play by crosschecking Golden Knights defenseman Colin Miller in retaliation to a Miller hit just moments before.
The Stanley Cup is the ultimate goal for everyone who has ever picked up a hockey stick. So close to that goal, players from both teams have ignored it at times to settle personal quarrels. Clearly, in these passion-fueled moments, something is blinding them from their true objective. That thing is resentment of the only obstacle they can see that stands in their way: a player in the opposing jersey.
Game 2 Ending a Sign of Things to Come?
As time expired in Game 2 and the Capitals secured a 3-2 victory to even the series, Washington defenseman Brooks Orpik hit Vegas forward Erik Haula along the boards. In response, Haula slashed Orpik up high and a skirmish ensued involving all players on the ice. Orpik required stitches according to Sportsnet’s Luke Fox, while Haula received a five-minute major and a game misconduct for the slash.
The penalties to Haula were essentially ceremonial, as they were doled out after time had expired. However, it will be interesting to see how the referees handle the remainder of the series. Now that the high tension between the two teams has reached a point of direct, non-hockey confrontations, the referees will likely become more strict in order to keep the focus on hockey and not on sideshow conflicts between the players and teams.
The question is, with what’s at stake, will it work?