Nate Schmidt remains close with several of his former teammates on the Washington Capitals.
But the Golden Knights defenseman is putting his friendships on hold until summertime.
“Hey, for the next two weeks, it’s a bunch of bad guys over there,” Schmidt said Thursday. “A bunch of guys I don’t like at all.”
Schmidt facing his former team is one of several intriguing storylines surrounding the Stanley Cup Final between the expansion Knights and Capitals, who are making their first appearance in the final since 1998.
It’s a scenario that left the normally chatty Schmidt searching for words.
“That’s a pretty incredible situation, given everything that’s happened through last year’s playoffs into this year, the expansion draft, everything. I don’t know how to really describe how I feel about it,” Schmidt said. “This is Vegas. You could probably make a prop bet, but I don’t know what the odds would have been on that. Would have been pretty incredible.”
Washington advanced after defeating host Tampa Bay 4-0 in Game 7 on Wednesday behind two goals from Andre Burakovsky and a 29-save effort from goaltender Braden Holtby, who is riding a scoreless streak of 159 minutes, 27 seconds.
Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final is at 5 p.m. Monday at T-Mobile Arena.
“They’re playing real good hockey, playing real competitive,” Knights coach Gerard Gallant said. “They’re a little bit like us. It doesn’t matter whether they’re playing at home or on the road, they’re playing the same game. They’re working hard. They got some big superstars on their team, but they’re going to be a good team. It should be a great series.”
Schmidt spent his first four seasons in the NHL with the Capitals but could never crack their top four on the blue line.
He assumed the role of No. 1 defenseman for the Knights after being selected in the expansion draft and is expected to match up often against a Capitals’ top line that features Alex Ovechkin, center Evgeny Kuznetsov and bruising winger Tom Wilson.
Ovechkin led the NHL in goals during the regular season with 49, while Kuznetsov — he of the famed flapping-bird goal celebration — has a league-best 24 postseason points, including 11 goals.
“They’ve bought in. They’re playing as a team, and they’re willing to do anything to win,” Knights forward James Neal said. “They’re physical, they can score goals, they’ve got skill. Nothing I don’t think we’ve seen before. We played a very similar team in Winnipeg. That being said, we’re going to have to be hard on their top guys like we have in the series before.”
The Knights went 2-0 against Washington in the regular season, winning 3-0 on Dec. 23 at T-Mobile Arena and 4-3 in Washington on Feb. 4.
Marc-Andre Fleury was in net for both victories and also has a long history facing the Capitals during his time with Pittsburgh.
Fleury eliminated Washington in Game 7s in 2009 and 2017 en route to the Stanley Cup and, ironically, stands in the Capitals’ path once again.
“I thought I was done with them for a little bit,” Fleury joked. “We’ll be fine. It’s a fun building to play in, too, in Washington. Obviously, they have a great team, and it’s going to be a great challenge. We’ve just got to get it going.”
Knights general manager George McPhee spent 17 seasons as Washington’s GM. Of the 25 players to appear for the Capitals this postseason, 14 were drafted under McPhee’s watch.
McPhee and current Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan grew up together in Guelph, Ontario, and were teammates at Bowling Green. MacLellan was hired by McPhee in Washington and served as assistant GM for seven seasons before being named GM when McPhee was fired in 2014.
“He’s a misfit, too, just like us,” Schmidt said of McPhee. “I think that as much as you, at the beginning of the season, you reveled in the idea that you were given away or traded away, I think it’s kind of morphed into a sense of belonging to this group. I think he’s in the same boat. Maybe going into the building will be a little bit different for him, but I think other than that, it will be status quo as usual.”