Awkward homecomings at the Stanley Cup Final

Golden Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt, a former Capital, is in an interesting spot, playing against his former Capitals teammates for hockey's ultimate prize. Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Nate Schmidt played 10 playoff games in Washington, D.C., while a member of the Capitals. He's felt the energy in the building at the start of the games. He's felt the creeping doubt when things take a downturn for the home team.

So how important is it for the visiting Vegas Golden Knights to capitalize when those downturns occur for the Caps in the Stanley Cup Final?

"As the opposing team, we're trying to inject as much doubt as we can," said Schmidt.

Schmidt has played in D.C. as a member of the road team before, as the Knights visited Washington on Feb. 4 and won, 4-3. But it's still weird to be in the other locker room. Still weird to bring teammates to restaurants that are no longer local.

"Good mussels. I was trying to take the guys somewhere nice. They've got good seafood here. Gotta sample the local cuisine," he said.

In a different parallel universe, Schmidt is still with the Capitals, either because they shifted their protection plans or because GM Brian MacLellan's trade proposal to have Vegas lay off Schmidt in the expansion draft was accepted.

"I really enjoyed my time in Washington. I thought the team was special," Schmidt said, before grinning. "I must be the reason why they're here. I was the problem!"

Schmidt likes to call this matchup between the Capitals and the Golden Knights "The Stanley Cup Final That Was Never Meant To Be." He sees commonalities in the two teams.

"If you look at these groups on both sides, they were both down and out. You look at the players we have, and we were supposed to be a down and out team, not supposed to be that great. A closing window for another team [the Caps]," he said.

But it didn't close. In fact, it was wider than it's been in 20 years.

So what happened in Washington, in Schmidt's eyes?

"I think there were guys there who needed the opportunity. Look at what would have happened if I had stayed there. Who would have known where guys would be. Sometimes you just need to get chances. That's why you've seen guys flourish," he said. "I just needed a chance to hit the next level. There's a lot of great defensemen over there. It's hard to hit the next level. I actually feel like we're in the same boat, with some of the younger guys that have made an impact in the last year. Sometimes you just need a little extra opportunity, to grow yourself as a person and a player."

That said, Schmidt felt he could have still been a Capital.

"You thought that you had done enough to be protected in Washington, a team that had signed you. I was sad about leaving a good group. But I was happy to reunite with George."

Golden Knights GM George McPhee is the other awkward homecoming of this Stanley Cup Final. He was the general manager of the Capitals from 1997 to his firing in 2014. He drafted 13 players currently on the Capitals roster. He also signed Schmidt as a free agent.

"It's funny how life goes," said McPhee. "Two years ago I was walking around Ann Arbor kicking stones and couldn't get a job, you know. I'm certainly proud of the Washington team and the players. We made good selections. And they turned out to be real good players. I can certainly take pride in that. And when you're working with them, they're sometimes like your own kids. You're on call for them all the time. You're trying to help them. You're trying to steer them in the right direction. And then you get fired, and you're suddenly persona non grata because nobody wants to be too close to you in the organization. I understand that things change quickly. And that's the business."

It is the business. Players come and go, executives come and go. But hockey has a funny way of having everything boomerang around again, as it has here: If Nate Schmidt wants to win the Stanley Cup, he'll have to go through old friends. If the Capitals want to win the Cup, they'll have to go through the general manager who helped select over half their roster.

"Who could have scripted this at the expansion draft? I don't think anybody could have. It's special for where both teams are. For the proposed window to be back open again in Washington. For us to be here," said Schmidt.

Jersey Foul of the Week

From Vegas:

This is a good time to mention, again, that a Wayne Gretzky jersey for any team that he didn't play for is not a Foul. No. 99 is retired league-wide. If a Washington Capitals player wanted to wear it, he couldn't.

The five best quote machines of the Stanley Cup Final

5. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Vegas Golden Knights

As my colleague Emily Kaplan wrote, he's one of the most fascinating men in hockey. But he's also the guy who, time and again, best captures the feeling of what the Golden Knights mean to Vegas, and vice versa.

"Nobody knew it was going to be like this. We're just trying to give back what they're giving to us," he said after Game 1. "Brand new town. A known town, but one that has so many other sides to it that it wants to show. People that come in that have nothing to do with The Strip. They want to be known for more than one thing, and it's cool to see."

4. T.J. Oshie, Washington Capitals

"He's filibustering again," said one Capitals employee, watching Oshie in his 15th minute of holding court after Game 2. Once in a while, Oshie will bring forth a hot-take opinion, like when Tom Wilson was suspended and he railed against it. But mostly, Oshie is one of the best in the Capitals' room at breaking down what's happening on the ice and why, like during the Lightning series when he let us in on the team meetings the Capitals had at the end of the regular season that firmed up their defensive prowess.

3. George McPhee, Vegas Golden Knights

If there's one question McPhee has been asked more than any in this wacky season, it's "how?" How did he do this? How did it work? How?!

I've known McPhee for years, yet I can't figure out if his confident responses are kayfabe -- or if he was always sure the Golden Knights would amount to something significant. Either way, it's fascinating to hear him discuss, in hindsight, how the team was built.

"We did the very best to try to find those unknown surprises, get a younger team, a player that may develop into names you'll recognize now but didn't then, and there are only -- you know, 90 percent of the guys we claimed were guys we expected to be here for a while and develop with us, and only a handful of guys that we might have moved had we not made the playoffs," he said before the Final.

2. Tom Wilson, Washington Capitals

What's the sense of being a heel if you're not going to cut heel promos? Like after Wilson walloped Jonathan Marchessault and was asked what he thought Marchessault might say about the hit. "He'd probably say he shouldn't admire his pass," he said. Ouch. Off mic, I've seen Wilson debate the merits of his actions with reporters that disagree with him. It's never dull.

(Oh, and for the record: Wilson shouldn't have been suspended, and the fervor caused by the hit was a symptom of it being delivered by Tom Wilson. The feckless crusades begging for supplemental justice for hits that, at most, could have earned a major penalty are the hockey equivalent of trying to get a talk show host fired for an off-color joke: It's the masses trying to will penance into existence where none should exist.)

1. Nate Schmidt, Vegas Golden Knights

The NHL's preeminent goofball, and the best quote in either locker room. We're talking about a guy who claimed the difference for his former team (the Capitals) in this postseason was because "they got rid of a defenseman" in the expansion draft (i.e. Nate Schmidt). Self-deprecating and insightful.

Listen to ESPN On Ice

When we walked into Arash Markazi's room in Vegas and saw he had a bottle of wine from Golden Knights owner Bill Foley's vineyard as a gift ... well, we knew it was a going to be a good podcast. Check out our discussion of all things Sin City with ESPN's gadfly, along with awesome stuff on the Stanley Cup Final, Gary Bettman's State of the NHL address and a rant line call on Phil Kessel. Get on iTunes here and stream here!

Puck headlines

Rule No. 1: Never steal a cop's hockey stick. Rule No. 2: Never steal all the cops' hockey sticks. [Patch]

Evgeny Kuznetsov's got one hand in his pocket, and the other one is wheeling a suitcase. [Russian Machine]

Wayne Gretzky and Jon Hamm on "The Great One on One," which should totally be "One On One With The Great One," but that might be trademarked by The Rock come to think of it. [YouTube]

Capitals fans taking back the National Portrait Gallery steps after wins, a tradition started by Penguins fans, is like Devils fans turning the "Potvin Sucks!" chants into "Rangers Suck!" Take ownership of your pain. [Washington Post]

Don Cherry has called out Gary Bettman before. Just not this literally. [Sportsnet]

"I'm not saying he will be a god for the Buffalo Sabres, but he will definitely help them in his first year." On Rasmus Dahlin. [Buffalo News]

Really like the Todd Nelson addition for the Dallas Stars. [MLive]

The retiring Radim Vrbata on how the NHL has changed: "At least guys are getting their money a lot quicker. Guys used to cash in at 27 when they reached free agency. Now guys are cashing in after their entry-level deals. My guess is everything will go down five years. The guys that would have played until 40 will play until 35, but I can't imagine guys playing 15 years in this kind of game. You'll have superstars like Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid who can play a long time, but for regular players, I don't think they will have as long a career as they used to." [Arizona Sports]

Imagine going to your class at Harvard and finding P.K. Subban and Zdeno Chara in it. OK, more to the point: Imagine going to your class at Harvard and having to sit behind Zdeno Chara.

Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn't read)

Vegas goalie coach Dave Prior is lucky to be alive and still chasing his first Stanley Cup. [SI]

In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

What to expect from this weekend's NHL scouting combine, from Chris Peters.