Capitals - Golden Knights, a Budding Rivalry?
By Paul Ratliff (@Prediction_P977)
The date was June 7th 2018, a sizzling hot southern Utah day for most residents of Utah, just a regular Thursday for most happened to be a night of anticipation and nervous energy for others. Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals presented a chance for the Washington Capitals to beat the Las Vegas Golden Knights to win the first Stanley Cup in franchise history for a team that formed in 1974. The pain and suffering of so many 3-1 leads that dissolved in the blink of an eye, winning presidents trophies for having the best regular season record in the NHL and losing to lesser opponents, epic game 7 collapses, and oh of course the back to back champs, the Pittsburgh Penguins, were the big brother of the Capitals and their fans, but that night everything changed.
The Golden Knights were an expansion team that comprised of castoffs from every team that didn’t choose to protect them, and created a monster in Sin City. The expansion draft featured every single team in the NHL having to play the difficult game of determining which players meant the least to their respective team and left those players vunerable to George Mcphee the general manager of the Las Vegas Golden Knights. The “Island of Misfits” was formed with few names that the casual hockey fan had heard of, Nate Schmidt, Cody Eakin, William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, and David Perron were some of the misfits, but one name clearly didn’t belong, Penguins 2X Stanley cup champion goaltender Marc Andre-Fleury. The Penguins had won numerous playoff games with the man they called “Flower” in net, but the rumblings of moving on to young prospect Matt Murray grew louder and louder. The breakup with Fleury was tough for the fans of Pittsburgh, many of whom I knew from my time back on the East coast because he is not only a good player, but such a lovable personality and person. The Penguins chance to move to Murray in net, changed the course of the expansion Golden Knights forever.
The morning of Thursday June 7th, I awoke for work just like every other Thursday all year long, but I began to feel anxiety creeping through me and my thoughts of what was set to ensue that night on NBC. The game meant so much to me personally for multiple reasons, my childhood and hometown team, the Washington Capitals had a chance to hoist the Stanley cup for the first time ever, and I had fallen in love with the Golden Knights. All season long I watched the Knights and began to really appreciate what they were doing as not only an on ice product, but a mainstay in the community. The tragic Las Vegas shooting where a rogue gunman fired upon thousands from the Mandalay bay was gut wrenching for the city, and its surrounding areas. In the aftermath of that horrific night, Vegas Strong became the rallying cry for the residents, neighbors, and people all around the world to help ease the pain. Vegas Strong also became the mentality the Las Vegas Golden Knights, not a desert mirage that the emotional fuel of that tragedy propelled the expansion Golden Misfits for a winner take all scenario for Lord Stanley’s cup.
After clock watching and suffering from the anticipation all day the time had finally come, game 5 Knights on the brink of elimination and a chance for potentially America’s greatest Russian import to finally capture the trophy that had alluded him so long against a goalie who was the roadblock multiple times. The emotions were high, and the night ended with the Great 8 raising the greatest trophy in sports. The franchise that had choked more than any professional sports team in any sport without shaking up their core that I had ever seen finally cashed in their heartbreak equity, the long suffering Washington Capitals were world champions. A night that no Capitals fan would ever forget, stung the fans of the Golden Knights, whose team had navigated through every round of the playoffs in dominating fashion but lost the ultimate prize on home ice. The Capitals returned to TMobile arena on Tuesday, but they didn’t arrive to a welcome fit for a champion it more closely resembled the return of a bitter rival.
The energy could be felt if you were in the arena or watching at home, the speed, the hits, and the effort popped for any viewer but the chirping that began early in the game between two enforcers was the thing that had everyone glued to the action. Tom Wilson #43 for the Capitals is the epitome of a player that you love if he is on your team, but hate if he plays for anyone else. Willie, as he is affectionately called by his teammates, is a young player that plays with reckless abandon. To say that Wilson isn’t aware in 2018 that he needs to change his style of play is like saying water is wet, the true question depends on if Wilson is willing to make the changes. Wilson is the guy that is well known by Knights fans, as the guy that took a run at Marchassault and overall a dirty player that doesn’t play within the legal limits of the game. Wilson to most Capitals fans straddles the line of tough or dirty player delicately and slots in more in the tough category, where as the entire NHL sees it differently. The Knights feature a player that is a known enforcer that his best skill as a player is high physicality and aggressiveness, #75 Ryan Reaves.
The game was close, the emotions running high, but a personal vendetta between two goons stole all the storylines from the 5-3 thriller that ended in the Knights emerging victorious. Wilson and Reaves have had bad blood that dated back to Reaves time with the Saint Louis Blues, the two combatants dropped the gloves on two occasions, and delivered crushing blows every time the teams matched up. The Caps had been crowned the champs, but Reaves was looking for sweet revenge for the Knights, their fans, and the rest of the NHL. With 4:18 remaining in the second period the hunter became the hunted, as Ryan Reaves blindsided Tom Wilson at a high rate of speed that ended with Wilson face down on the ice for what seemed like 5 minutes. Reaves looked giddy, and the fans erupted showing their pleasure to see a marked man in the crosshairs get destroyed.
The insanity that ensued made this game the most memorable for both teams in the early season, Reaves was given a 5 minute major and ejected from the game, the Knights killed off the 5 minute power play, and former Capital Nate Schmidt lit the lamp for his second tally, and the Knights would emerge the victors.
The most controversial storyline actually took place after the players had left the ice, Ryan Reaves appeared at an autograph signing for local Las Vegas memorabilia company Inscriptagraphs, and began to sign countless photos of Wilson laying face down on the ice concussed. The promo from Inscriptagraphs for the signing didn’t hold back, “This photo is a must have photo for all VGK fans as it is when Ryan laid out Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson on December, 4, 2018! Ryan hand inscribed this photo “he ran a lion in the jungle”: which is the quote he said after the game about the incident Ryan was ejected out of the game for!” As a fan of the Golden Knights, a team that has done everything right since the franchise’s inception, they had made a fatal mistake, allowing a player to recognize he is not only proud that he laid out Wilson, but wanted to profit off an illegal blindside hit that he was thrown out for and his team was assessed a 5 minute major.
As a Capitals fan from Northern Virginia about 45 minutes from Washington D.C, the Knights were a smashing success for numerous reasons, but most notably their blue collar style of play where no matter what line a player is on the mentality of a 4th line grinder was the mindset, but this is embarrassing for the Golden Knights so much so that the photos were destroyed and every inkling of the incident has been wiped from the internet. So when I hear from Knights fans in Saint George, Utah that Wilson and the Washington Capitals aren’t in their head, I simply do not buy it. A player that sees ice time for your franchise was so proud of his deplorable hit that he signed autographs on a picture depicting a clearly concussed Wilson who had to be helped off the ice. The Capitals ruined a picturesque season for the Golden Knights in June, but they never forgot neither have their fans. The rivalry began in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final, but the flame of the rivalry burns eternally in the hearts and minds of fans of both fanbases. I for one, cannot wait to find out what the next chapter of this heated heavyweight bout brings, but rest assured next time in Sin City I will be in the building for the festivities.