The Class-A Carolina League Frederick Keys baseball team will be throwing its support behind the Washington Capitals in a unique way one day before Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final.
When the Maryland-based Keys take on the Myrtle Beach Pelicans Friday, it’ll be “All Caps Night” with former Capitals forward Mike Knuble on hand to do the first pitch honors. The Keys will also wear special jerseys inspired by the NHL side’s 2015 Winter Classic designl.
Here’s a few better looks via the Keys’ Instagram story (s/t RMNB):
Calling it their “Summer Classic” jersey, the Keys will then auction them off with proceeds benefiting Play4TheCure, which is “dedicated to raising funds for the National Foundation for Cancer Research through competitive sports featuring recreational sports clubs, middle schools, high schools and collegiate sporting events.”
After Bill Foley agreed to pay a whopping $500 million for the right to put a hockey team in the middle of the Mojave Desert, the NHL decided his Vegas Golden Knights deserved a chance for a swift return on that investment.
If the other NHL owners had known just how huge Foley’s reward would be – and how incredibly quickly he would get it – they probably wouldn’t have been quite so nice to the new guy.
It’s too late now, though. After reaping a bonanza from one of the most generous expansion drafts in sports history, the Golden Knights are two victories away from an unbelievable Stanley Cup Final berth.
A brand-new team in a league that has been around for 101 years already has a Pacific Division title, two playoff series victories and a 2-1 lead on the Winnipeg Jets in the Western Conference finals.
“I don’t think anybody saw us here,” Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. “It’s been a lot of fun to be part of it. Really proud of this team and the way these guys have been working. We deserve to be here.”
Fleury and the other players accomplishing this feat refer to themselves as the Golden Misfits, yet few of Vegas’ expansion draft selections were truly undesired by the clubs that lost them 11 months ago.
Instead, general manager George McPhee took full advantage of his opportunities to compile an uncommonly talented roster, and coach Gerard Gallant turned that roster into a brilliant team in shockingly swift fashion. But it all started with the draft that allowed McPhee to build this monster in less than a year.
“It had a big impact,” McPhee acknowledged. “The (expansion draft) rules were favorable. Gave us something to work with, and gave this team an opportunity to be a good team.”
The NHL allowed its teams to protect only seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie, or eight skaters and one goalie. By way of comparison, when the NHL last expanded in 2000, teams were allowed to protect a whopping nine forwards, five defensemen and a goalie, or seven forwards, three defensemen and two goalies.
The league also required teams to expose players with significant NHL experience who were under contract through next season, closing loopholes and helping Vegas even more. Third-line forwards and top-four defensemen were available from almost every team.
The easiest acquisition was Fleury, of course. The Knights got a three-time Stanley Cup winning goalie with 375 career victories for nothing, and he has largely stayed healthy while playing at a formidable level.
The Knights also landed the likes of James Neal, a proven veteran talent with nine consecutive 20-goal seasons. He scored 25 goals while providing steady veteran leadership.
They plucked William Karlsson, a clearly gifted forward who had yet to reach his full potential with two NHL teams. The Swede swiftly became one of the NHL’s best players, racking up 43 goals – an NHL record for an expansion team’s first season – and 35 assists along with a plus-49 rating.
And the expansion draft terms allowed McPhee to get creative in trades with teams hoping to keep players who couldn’t fit under the protection umbrella. For instance, the Knights ended up with Reilly Smith in a trade because Florida wanted them to draft Jonathan Marchessault – and the two ex-Panthers became two of the Knights’ top four scorers.
The draft bounty isn’t the only reason these upstart Knights have immediately entered their Golden years.
All of this talent wouldn’t have won so many games without Gallant. He built a balanced, disciplined team that has rolled four lines and played relentless two-way hockey while mining untapped talents such as Karlsson and Eric Haula, who scored 29 goals after never managing more than 15 in Minnesota.
“Gerard has done a terrific job of making this a team,” McPhee said. “He has really brought a lot of players along, and they’ve played better than they’ve played anywhere else.”
Foley bought this opportunity with his $500 million expansion fee, yet nobody in the sports world expected the Golden Knights to put it all together so swiftly. That includes the 73-year-old Foley, who raised eyebrows around the league when he set a public goal of bringing the Stanley Cup to Las Vegas within six years – a goal he later revised to maybe eight years.
Instead, there’s an increasingly strong chance the Golden Knights will parade the Stanley Cup down the Strip one month from now. There are 12 other NHL teams that have never won a championship, along with seven franchises that haven’t raised the Cup in at least 23 years.
Potential NHL expansion owners in Seattle and Houston are probably thinking $500 million was a bargain, since the expansion fee is likely to go up when the league eventually awards its 32nd franchise. It also seems improbable that the NHL would ever make it this easy to build a team again.
But nothing will erase the Golden Knights’ remarkable embrace of this unusual moment in hockey history.
“It was important to the league and to Las Vegas and to Bill Foley that this franchise had a chance to work,” McPhee said. “That people that were coming to the games could enjoy the product and become real fans, and we could grow some deep roots in this marketplace. So I didn’t mind the rules.”
AP freelance writer W.G. Ramirez in Las Vegas contributed to this report.
The Washington Capitals may have dropped two games at home to allow the Tampa Bay Lightning to even the Eastern Conference Final at two games apiece, but a 7-1 road record this postseason will allow for some confidence as the series becomes a best-of-three.
“There’s nothing we can do. We’re not going to look back, we’re just going to look forward,” said Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin. “This group of guys have been in different situations all year and we fight through it. It’s a huge test. We’re still going to have fun, we’re still going to enjoy it. We’ll see what happens. We’re going to Tampa to play our game, try to get a victory and come back home.”
Head coach Barry Trotz used the word “resilient” several times in his post-Game 4 press conference to describe his team, and it’s appropriate They dropped the first two games to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round only to reel off four straight wins. They dropped Game 1 against the Pittsburgh Penguins after blowing a third period lead, then allowed their opponent to tie the series at two before winning Games 5 and 6 to advance. Now they wasted a strong start to the conference final and have given the Lightning a lifeline, even as they dominated at even strength through four games.
“We know how we have to play,” Trotz said afterward. “We’ve played well in three of four games; we played one stinker. We’re comfortable going on the road. We would have loved to have gotten this one tonight. We didn’t. We’re going to go to Tampa, and our intention is to go win a game in Tampa. We’ve already done it twice.”
Two dominant road victories already in this series won’t allow the Capitals’ confidence to wane or for old memories of previous playoff choke jobs to creep into their heads just yet. It’s about replicating their success in Games 1 and 2 while trying to be smarter about discipline (Hey, Lars Eller!) and not allow a Tampa power play that’s capitalized 42.9 percent in this series to continue winning that battle.
A lot of the credit for Tampa’s two wins in D.C. can go to goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who stopped 36 shots in both victories and allowed only four goals. Some of those chances were of the high-danger variety, but the Capitals couldn’t find the back of the net.
“He didn’t play great in the first two. He played well in the second two,” said Tom Wilson about Vasilevskiy’s play. “It’s our job to make him look more like the goalie the first couple of games. We’ll keep going to the net. We’ll make it hard on him. Hopefully the bounces will go in.”
“We had pretty good chances. We just [didn’t] execute,” added Ovechkin.
The old saying goes it’s not a series until a team loses at home. Well, the home team hasn’t had any luck in this conference final, but you have to imagine at some point over the course of these final three games a breakthrough will occur. In the meantime, the Capitals will look to continue to the home-ice non-advantage trend Saturday night in Game 5 (7:15 p.m. ET, NBC, live stream) at AMALIE Arena.
“Nothing’s come easy for this team,” said Trotz.
Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at email@example.com.
• The Winnipeg Jets could really use some secondary scoring at the moment. [Winnipeg Free Press]
• The party in Vegas during Golden Knights games isn’t just inside T-Mobile Arena. [Las Vegas Sun]
• How will the Washington Capitals go about slowing down the Tampa Bay Lightning power play? [Japers’ Rink]
• Meanwhile, the penalty kill is working for the Lightning — at least in Game 4 it did. [Tampa Bay Times]
• Humboldt bus crash survivor Kaleb Dahlgren: “I want to play hockey again” [ESPN]
• “A trademark dispute over #HumboldtStrong and other slogans related to the fatal Humboldt Broncos bus crash in April is being resolved. The team took on the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League after it applied to trademark phrases that also included ‘Healing is in the Game’ and ‘Sticks on the Porch.’” [CP via TSN]
• The NHL returning to Quebec? It doesn’t look promising. [THN]
• Why it’s the right move for Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold to limit his next general manager. [Hockey Wilderness]
• Who should the Carolina Hurricanes grab at No. 2? Filip Zadina or Andrei Svechnikov? [Elite Prospects]
• The Nashville Predators are dipping their toes into the world of politics by throwing their support behind a mayoral candidate. [Puck Daddy]
• The good and the bad of Vancouver Canucks super prospect Elias Pettersson spending one more year playing in Sweden. [Pass it to Bulis]
• A good review of an important book: “Game Change” by Ken Dryden. [Puck Junk]
• The Stanley Cup has an interesting connection to Denmark. [IIHF]
• Finally, ahead of Game 4 tonight, let’s relive the Vegas Golden Knights’ memorable pre-game intro from Wednesday night:
The Eastern Conference Final is now a best-of-3 series after the Tampa Bay Lightning survived a third-period onslaught by the Washington Capitals to even things at 2-2 with a 4-2 win on Thursday night.
The Capitals have been laying siege on Andrei Vasilevskiy and Co. over the past two games, but after jumping out to a 2-0 series lead on the road in Tampa, all of their best efforts have been for naught as the Lightning found a way to gain a lead and then manage to hold onto it for dear life.
The Caps have simply been the better team 5-on-5, but the Lightning picked a good night to figure out how to put pucks in the net in that situation.
Coming into the game, the Lightning’s even strength play produced only three goals. Nearly all of their damage came with the man-advantage and it didn’t help them as they fell in a 0-2 rut and through three games they had been outscored 8-3 at 5-on-5.
Tampa was a good even strength team during the regular season and their overall CF% has been quite good in the playoffs so far, but they’ve taken a step back in that department in this series.
Killorn’s tally may have been at 5-on-5, but the Caps had just barelykilled off a penalty when the Lightning forward scored.
The goal broke the deadlock after Evgeny Kuzenetsov provided the equalizer in the second frame thanks to some dirty backhand sauce from Alex Ovechkin, who hasn’t scored in either of the losses.
An empty-net goal later and the Lightning fly back home having stolen two from under the Caps’ noses.
Given the volume of shots being thrown Vasilevskiy’s way during Washington’s two home games, the Capitals are probably a little unlucky at the moment.
Vasilevskiy has stopped 36 shots in each of the past two games, both 4-2 wins for the Lightning.
Nicklas Backstrom returned after missing the first three games of the series (and four total) with a hand injury. He played 18:51 and was a minus-one with four shots on goal. Not the return the Capitals would have hoped for from one of the league’s premier set-up men.
It’s going to be a long 48 hours in Washington, a lot of time for both players and fans to stew over what’s happened in this series. The Caps have never won a series when they won the first two games on the road.
They’ve managed to fend off one curse this postseason. It appears a second one awaits now.
The race to two begins on Saturday night in Game 5 (7:15 p.m. ET, NBC).