When the Stanley Cup Final begins Monday night, pitting the Vegas Golden Knights against the Washington Capitals, only two men on the ice truly will know what it takes to bring home hockey's greatest prize.
Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik, teammates with the 2009 Penguins, are the only players in the series with their names engraved on the fabled silver trophy.
Fleury's run to the final series has been the warmest and fuzziest storyline of the playoffs to date.
The affable 33-year-old, who was cast aside in favor of a younger model because of the circumstances of the expansion draft last summer, landed on his feet to such a degree he has a chance to finish the three-peat his old teammates could not complete.
“He's one of the finest people you'll meet in this game,” Vegas GM George McPhee said. “He's brought tremendous leadership to our group, brought experience, needless to say. The way he carries himself is really, really impressive. It's not contrived. It's who he is.”
There's more to Fleury's story than sentimentality, though. He's nobody's mascot. He's the biggest reason the upstart Golden Knights are where they are.
Sure, Vegas' team speed, scoring balance and relentless commitment to defense have been significant factors, but Fleury has been playing not only some of the best hockey of his career but also some of the best the NHL has seen. Ever.
Since the league started keeping track of save percentage in 1956, 265 goalies have played more than 10 games in a single postseason. Fleury's .947 save percentage after three rounds is the best recorded.
“I just love the game. I love to play. I still have a good time doing it,” Fleury said. “Coming from Pittsburgh, I've been seeing (Sidney Crosby), the best player in the world, seeing him every day and the way he handles himself. Obviously, I picked up a lot from him, spending so much time with him, someone I look up to, the way he plays on the ice and the way he is off the ice, too.”
While the series represents a chance for Fleury to write a happy ending for his fairy tale season, it's an opportunity for the Capitals to rewrite the entire narrative surrounding their franchise.
Previously, the Capitals were the Houston Oilers of the 1970s, a talented team denied a title repeatedly by a superior division rival from Pittsburgh.
They have used a dangerous counterattacking offense, a stingy neutral-zone structure and a strong playoff run from goalie Braden Holtby to move within four wins of changing that perception.
That could be a heavy burden to carry for players who never have played under the sport's brightest spotlight, but that's where Orpik comes in. The 37-year-old defenseman has shared some of the wisdom he acquired while wearing black and gold.
“I remember the first time I played in the finals. We played Detroit in 2008,” Orpik said. “We thought we'd go in there and just run them out of the building, and before we knew it, we had lost the first two games. It seemed like the series had just started, and we never recovered from it. A lot of that is emotion driven.
“You're so excited to be there that all of a sudden, you kind of get out of your game plan and start playing a different way than you had all year. That'll be important. It's a very fine line. Enjoy the opportunity and the moment and the stage you're on, but really realizing that once you get between the boards, it's the exact same game as you played the first three rounds. It's not different. It's just more people watching you.”