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The Washington Capitals have waited nearly 44 years to raise
the Stanley Cup for the first time.

Their only remaining obstacles are some desert-dwelling misfits who refuse to
wait for anything.

The expansion Vegas Golden Knights are just four wins away from an astounding
championship when they host Alex Ovechkin’s long-striving Caps on Monday night
to open a thoroughly improbable Stanley Cup Final.

Even the players from the NHL’s last two teams standing seemed a bit
surprised by their achievements when they gathered Sunday in balmy 84-degree
Nevada weather.

”Who would have thunk it?” asked Vegas defenseman Nate Schmidt Cameron
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, who played the previous four seasons for the
Capitals. ”The Stanley Cup Final that was never meant to be, right?”

Indeed, a first-time NHL champ will be crowned next month after a Final
between two teams that arrived at hockey’s ultimate destination from very
different directions. While the Caps finally climbed over the hump in the
Eastern Conference, the Golden Knights have been bulldozing every logical
obstacle in their path since October.

”We’ve been able to do some things in the playoffs, but we never got to that
last stage until now,” Washington forward T.J. Oshie said. ”And everybody knows
what Vegas did in the first year is very special. We’re both hungry. This is
going to be a beast of a series.”

The Golden Knights have exceeded every expectation by utilizing a rich
expansion draft and multiple clever coaching moves to create a team that
dominated the Pacific Division and then rampaged through the Western Conference
playoffs. Their story still carries a ring of impossibility, but they’re close
to adding a real ring to every hand in the dressing room full of self-described
”Golden Misfits,” as their T-shirts say.

The Capitals have repeatedly fallen short of their postseason goals during
Ovechkin’s career, including a heartbreaking shutout loss to Marc-Andre Fleury
in Game 7 of the second round against Pittsburgh last spring. After falling to
Fleury’s champion Penguins in the past two postseasons, the Caps revamped their
roster with youth and finally overcame years of playoff disappointment to reach
their first Final in two decades. Of course Keke
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, Fleury is in the way again – in goal for the Golden
Knights.

Neither team was the favorite to get this far. Neither team is ready to stop
now.

While Capitals coach Barry Trotz skated his now-customary hot lap before
practice at T-Mobile Arena, the Golden Knights had their usual standing
room-only crowd for practice at their training complex in suburban
Summerlin.

Their grip on this sports-hungry town was already strong, and the 24-hour
gambling mecca will come to a standstill this week during the Cup games in the
arena behind the New York New York hotel-casino and its 150-foot Statue of
Liberty, which has been wearing a Golden Knights jersey since April.

Speaking of larger-than-life figures in hockey sweaters, this series
showcases two major talents who can cement a legacy.

Ovechkin is a formidable scorer and competitor, but he has never won an
Olympic medal with Russia or a Stanley Cup ring with the Caps. He’s keeping a
sense of humor about this momentous trip: With a straight face Sunday, Ovechkin
said Russian President Vladimir Putin had called him to wish him luck, before
adding: ”I’m just joking.”

”We want to be here,” Ovechkin said. ”We work so hard all year. I don’t think
nobody believes in us, and nobody believes in Vegas Andrew
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, and we’re right now in the Stanley Cup Finals,
and we fight for a Cup. Come enjoy this moment.”

Fleury already has three Stanley Cup rings, but he has added another
incredible act to his career with tenacious play for the Golden Knights, whose
inexperienced pros have leaned on him to get through tough nights.

”I think it’s weird seeing that team here, being in the Cup the first year,”
said Brooks Orpik, the only Washington player with a ring. ”Obviously, I’m not
surprised (Fleury) is here. Without him, they weren’t beating us last year. He
singlehandedly won a couple of games for (Pittsburgh) when we totally outplayed
them.”

Here are more things to know about the ice hockey event in the Mojave:

COACHING CROWN

The winning coach also will raise the Stanley Cup for the first time in a
fitting peak to two careers built on resilience. The 55-year-old Trotz never
played in the NHL, but his 19th season as an NHL coach is ending in his first
Cup Final. Gerard Gallant was a solid NHL forward for Detroit Graham
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, but the 54-year-old bench boss had never even won a
playoff round as an NHL coach before this spring.

(TURN)OVER KNIGHTS

Several Capitals pointed out the importance of minimizing turnovers against
the Golden Knights, whose counterattacking acumen and team speed cause problems.
”They’re a very fast team and when you turn pucks over, they’re like a shark
smelling blood in the water,” Oshie said. ”They all stop on a dime and want to
take it the other way. That’s how they get a lot of their offense.”

CAPTAIN CHARGE

Ovechkin could become the first Russian captain to raise the Stanley Cup. If
the Knights win, they don’t have a captain to raise the Cup first. Gallant and
GM George McPhee decided to rely on a six-man leadership council instead. ”I
think that’s the best decision we ever made,” Gallant said. ”Sure, there’s guys
who could have been captain in our group, but it was their first year – and we
really didn’t think we’d be grabbing the (Western Conference) trophy the Los
Angeles Angels infielder Zack Cozart will have season-ending surgery to repair a
torn labrum in his left shoulder.

The team made the announcement during Wednesday night’s game against the
Boston Red Sox.

The 32-year-old Cozart went for a second opinion on his shoulder after
experiencing continued discomfort. He plans to have surgery in Los Angeles
soon.

A free agent last offseason, Cozart left the Cincinnati Reds to sign a $38
million, three-year contract with the Angels and agreed to switch positions from
shortstop to third base. He played in just 58 games during his first season with
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, batting .219 with five homers and 18 RBIs.

”I think this has been battling him on and off for a little bit, I mean in
previous years. And it got to the point where something needs to be done and for
Zack it’s the best course of action, for our organization the best course of
action, and he’ll be 100 percent for next year,” manager Mike Scioscia said
after his team’s 9-6 loss to the Red Sox.

Cozart spent his first seven years in the big leagues with Cincinnati.

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