AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Not even two years ago, the Las Vegas Golden Knights were just an idea. Now the NHL expansion team is on the brink of the Stanley Cup final. Now, let's be clear. If an expansion team somehow avoids finishing in last place in its inaugural year, that's a big deal. What the Golden Knights are doing this year is just ridiculous. It's one of the NHL stories I want to talk about with veteran hockey reporter Scott Burnside of The Athletic. Welcome to the program.
SCOTT BURNSIDE: Thank you very much for having me, and - always love to talk about playoff hockey.
CORNISH: So just how good are the Knights?
BURNSIDE: (Laughter) Well, I just got done a radio interview where I said I'm going to stop predicting anything to do with the Vegas Golden Knights because I have been wrong right from the get-go. They're a driven group, and I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that they were cast off or they felt cast off by their other NHL teams. They were exposed in the expansion draft. And so there is a - I think they call themselves the Vegas misfits. And I think there has been a galvanizing element to that. And they play a very fast-tempo game that is fun to watch, and it's been captivating. I agree with you. It's been the story of the NHL this season, and it certainly is the story of the playoffs to date.
CORNISH: I'm going to expose my bias here and talk about the Washington Capitals because for about a decade, they've been a Stanley Cup favorite. And they have good regular seasons, and then they kind of fall apart in the post-season. But this year...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOHN WALTON: Here come the Caps. Kuznetsov gets loose - Evgeny coming down the middle. A shot, and it comes over. He scores. He scores. Evgeny Kuznetsov wins it for Washington. It's off to the third round. The demons have been exorcised.
CORNISH: So essentially the Washington Capitals got past their tormentors, the Pittsburgh Penguins, as you can hear there. Their demons have finally been exorcised. Is that the case? How significant was this moment for this team?
BURNSIDE: Oh, there's no question. I've spent a lot of time around that team over the last decade. And you're right. They are a team - I believe they've won three Presidents' Trophies, so they've been the top team in the regular season three times, never managed to get out of the second round in the playoffs. In fact, this represents just the second time in franchise history that they've gone as far as a conference final.
I was certainly pleased for, you know, Barry Trotz, who coached for a long time in Nashville before going to Washington. He had never coached a team under the second round. Alexander Ovechkin, who has, you know, at times been criticized because of his inability as a captain to the team to lead his very talented Washington teams beyond the second round - you know, you could see in the postgame interviews that there's a huge weight had been lifted from his shoulders. And this has been a very talented team. And they have always underachieved in the playoffs. And this was a moment where they did not.
CORNISH: You know, it's hilarious to me that here we are talking about Las Vegas. I know the Nashville team, Tampa Bay team - they're all still alive. And meanwhile, no Canadian team has won the Stanley Cup since 1993. (Laughing) I understand just - there's just the lone Winnipeg Jets right now. Can they break that streak?
BURNSIDE: Well, you know, in having been in Winnipeg covering this series - and you understand the depth of passion for that team. Of course they lost the team. Years ago, they went to Arizona. And in 2011, Winnipeg got a team again as the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg. And it has not been an easy road.
This spring marked the first time in that franchise's history that they'd ever won a single playoff game, let alone a series. I don't know whether they can win on the road in Game 7 in Nashville, but I can tell you they're a very good team. And if they don't do it this year, they are definitely going to be back. And I think they probably represent Canada's greatest hope for breaking, as you point out, what has been a long, long Stanley Cup drought.
CORNISH: All right, so if you could pick a team at this point in time to take it all, who are you rooting for?
BURNSIDE: Well, at the beginning of the playoffs, I had Washington and Nashville in the final. I predicted the Capitals would not just exercise their demons against Pittsburgh but would win the whole thing. So I'm going to stick with that. I know there are three other very, very good teams still that feel that they can - they have the goods to take it all. But I'm going to stick with Washington defeating Nashville in the final.
CORNISH: That's Scott Burnside, national hockey writer for The Athletic. Thank you for speaking with us.
BURNSIDE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.