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Stanley Cup Final Has Makings Of A Long Battle After The First Two Games

By Steve Silverman

They are breathing easier in Washington after the Capitals squared the Stanley Cup Final with their 3-2 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 2 of the title round Wednesday night.

It was a significant victory because the Washington road warriors not only took home-ice advantage away from the Golden Knights, they also handed the expansion team their first home loss in the postseason.

That will give Vegas head coach Gerard Gallant and his players plenty to think about until the two teams face off in Washington Saturday night.

The Capitals have to feel good about themselves because they could have won both games in the series as they had a lead in the third period of Game 1 before Vegas earned their comeback victory. However, they will have to be even better if they are going to win their first Stanley Cup.

The Golden Knights are nothing if not relentless, and their rallying cry of "Golden Misfits" is clearly legitimate. Everyone on the team – including general manager George McPhee, head coach Gerard Gallant, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and leading playoff scorer Jonathan Marchessault – was rejected by another team.

They have rewritten professional sports history by their overwhelming performance as a first-year expansion team, and a victory in the Stanley Cup Final is within their grasp.

As great a story as it would be for the Golden Knights, it would be disastrous for the Caps. This team has made major postseason progress this year because it finally climbed past the Pittsburgh Penguins – their long-time tormentors.

After earning that second-round victory, the Caps overcame a 3-2 deficit to the explosive Tampa Bay Lightning and earned back-to-back shutouts in Games 6 and 7 to win the Eastern Conference.

The Caps have every reason to feel good about themselves thanks in large part to goalie Braden Holtby's remarkable save on Alex Tuch's point-blank shot late in the third period. However, if they should lose this series, they will have to live with the ignominy of being beaten by an expansion team.

That's a fate that will be shared by the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and Winnipeg Jets, but the Caps are the ones who will have to hear the retelling of the Golden Knights' victory over and over, ad nauseam.

If Alex Ovechkin thought losing to Sidney Crosby and the Penguins was painful in years past, serving as the losers in the closing chapter of what is sure to become a classic will be far worse.

Perhaps the Capitals would be better off not contemplating this, and just going out and playing. They have home-ice advantage, and they must take advantage if they are going to avoid a brutal fate.

Kovalchuk preparing for NHL return

Ilya Kovalchuk has one thing that nearly all teams want – the ability to put the puck in the net.

He has been doing just that in the KHL since 2013, and he is coming off a sensational season in which he scored 31 goals and 32 assists in 51 games for SKA St. Petersburg this season. He also scored five goals in the Olympics and was named the Most Valuable Player of the tournament as part of the Olympic Athletes from Russia.

Kovalchuk may be 35, but he is a proven NHL performer who should be a dependable goal scorer. He scored 417 goals and 816 points from 2002 through 2013 with the Atlanta Thrashers and the New Jersey Devils.

The teams that have the best chance of adding Kovalchuk include the Los Angeles Kings, Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers and Dallas Stars.

Other teams including the New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes and Golden Knights could also get involved in the recruitment process.

Kovalchuk can't sign with anyone until July 1, but he can negotiate and come to an agreement at any point. His size, strength and skill make him one of the most interesting off-season targets available.

Lou not likely to help Islanders' sign Tavares

The New York Islanders face the most critical of offseasons as they face the prospect of superstar center John Tavares hitting the free-agent market and signing with another team.

Tavares has been with the Islanders for nine seasons, and the team has struggled the majority of those seasons, and postseason success has been non-existent (three playoff appearances, one series victory).

Will the hiring of well-respected Lou Lamoriello improve the Islanders' chances of signing Tavares? It doesn't seem likely.

The Islanders get one advantage over the 30 other teams when it comes to signing their own free agent. They get to extend an eight-year offer while the other teams can only come through with seven-year deals.

The chances of Lamoriello extending a "max" contract seem remote. He was hired to build a respectable team that will eventually reach a championship level. Great teams cannot put all their eggs in one basket.

Lamoriello knows how the game is played as well as anyone, and he has the experience and discipline to take the long-term view of building his team to a championship level. He is not going to be swayed by public criticism, talk-show banter or second-guessing himself.

If Lamoriello does not sign Tavares, it will not be pleasant. However, if he comes up with an outstanding draft and the Islanders can craft a new image by signing one or two other free agents, it may be the right way to go.

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