Is the NHL still pinching itself to see if this is real life?

There’s a good chance Gary Bettman has been pinching himself every morning since Wednesday’s Eastern Conference Final.

If you had told him or anyone back in October, which teams would be playing for this year’s Stanley Cup, it would’ve elicited a laugh because it still sounds like a pipe dream.

The Washington Capitals and the Las Vegas Golden Knights will face off Monday in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals. It’s a matchup that no one saw coming. Everyone knows that the Golden Knights are doing something that has never been done before by an expansion team. They started the season as much as 500-1 underdogs and no NHL experts picked them to even make the playoffs.

Washington, surprisingly, was not a sexy pick to make the Stanley Cup Final either. The Capitals had many fans and experts convinced they would take a step back from their previous regular season success and continue their postseason futility.

This highly improbable Stanley Cup Final is more than just a dream for Bettman and the NHL, it’s a fantasy.

It has the chance to raise the profile of the NHL more than any final in recent memory.

The Golden Knights

That obviously was not the case.

The Golden Knights have made Las Vegas a hockeytown and are doing everything they can to keep it a hockeytown once the NFL moves in. When the league approved Las Vegas’ expansion bid in June 2016, the NHL became the first professional league with a franchise in Las Vegas.

Their status as Las Vegas’ only professional team lasted less than a year.

When the NFL announced the Oakland Raiders’ move to the city, the clock starting ticking for the NHL and the Golden Knights to make an impact in their hometown.

It would take a tragedy and a miracle for that to happen but happen it did.

Attributing a team’s success to the motivation caused by a terrible tragedy befalling their community is sort of cliché. Most professional athletes are endlessly competitive and the chance to be the best of the best is motivation enough. Not to mention the Golden Knights roster of cast-offs from other teams had a collective chip on their shoulders.

But that doesn’t mean the chance to help a city heal after a tragedy can’t provide even more fuel to the fire.

More importantly, it helped the city form an attachment to the team itself.

The Oct. 1, mass shooting in Las Vegas that resulted in 58 deaths and 851 injuries occurred shortly after the Knights final preseason game ended. It formed an uncommon bond between a team and a community.

Cities are known to rally behind their sports teams after a tragedy. New York had the Yankees and Mets after 9/11 and Boston had the Bruins, Celtics and Red Sox after the attack on the Boston Marathon in 2013.

In fact, the response from Bostonians to the Marathon attack and David Ortiz’ emotional speech helped rally fans around a Red Sox team that had become so unlikeable following the “Beer and Chicken” controversy and the disastrous hiring of manager Bobby Valentine in the previous two seasons.

But the Knights uniqueness cannot be overstated. In a town known for debauchery, where the point is not to recollect what happened there, local fans embraced the Knights in a way that will be remembered forever.

Players and fans literally and figuratively embraced each other.

I experienced this firsthand when I traveled to Las Vegas in April for a men’s league hockey tournament. Locals who saw me lugging around my hockey equipment repeatedly asked me if I was a Golden Knight. I grudgingly admitted that, no, unfortunately I was just a lowly men’s league player whose glory days had long passed.

Locals told me how much they loved hockey and how proud they were of the team. I have to admit, I expected it a little bit, but I was blown away by the scope of the team’s popularity.

With the Raiders arriving in Las Vegas in three NFL seasons, the Golden Knights have represented the NHL’s best attributes, from community service to top-level hockey. The bond forged between the residents of Las Vegas and their hockey team should help the country’s least popular major professional sport maintain a foothold against the juggernaut known as the NFL.

The Washington Capitals

Though the Golden Knights hype transcends hockey, the Washington Capitals story will draw the casual American hockey fan without a team playing in the final.

That’s because Capitals star, and one of the NHL’s most popular players, Alex Ovechkin won’t become the Barry Sanders of the NHL. In his prior 12 NHL seasons, Ovechkin never made the finals in spite of scoring more in the past two decades than any other NHL player.

Along with Ovechkin, the Capitals and the entire Washington, D.C. sports market has a chance to finally shed its reputation for playoff futility.

D.C. hasn’t had a team win a championship in any of the big four sports since the Washington Redskins’ 1991 Super Bowl victory over the Buffalo Bills. The Washington Wizards last won an NBA title as the Bullets in 1978, the Nationals have never won in their short history and long before the Nationals, the Senators only managed one World Series title.

The city is tied with Minneapolis for the second longest championship drought among towns with more than one professional sports team in a major four sport (sorry soccer fans, the success of the D.C. United does not count.)

Only Cincinnati has had a longer dry spell and only by one year.

That brings me back to the Capitals. Their 1998 Stanley Cup final loss in four straight games to the Detroit Red Wings was the last time any team from D.C. has played in a final in any of the major four sports.

That fact alone is enough to attract D.C. sports fans in droves, even if they aren’t hockey fans which is good for the NHL because it’s somewhere between the nation’s sixth and ninth biggest media market, depending on which source you consult. In fact, the conference finals have already drawn very strong ratings, likely due to the Capitals and Golden Knights. Combining these two factors means the trend of strong ratings is likely to continue in the finals.

The Point

These storylines have met at the perfect time. Vegas’ “feel-good” story of castoffs defying the odds and rallying around their community to do something no team has ever done before has captivated hockey fans and non hockey fans around the nation.

The chance for Washington, D.C. to end a championship drought and the opportunity to see Ovechkin play in the finals is the opposite side of an equally captivating tale. This Stanley Cup Final will be one unlike any other and it has the potential attract many people who don’t normally watch hockey. It could cement the legacy of one of its all-time greats or the opportunity to give an expansion franchise in a non hockey market, the legend it needs to thrive.

Like a classic Ovechkin slapper from the top of the circle or a Marc-André Fleury post-to-post robbery, the timing is perfect.

Let’s drop the puck.

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