LAS VEGAS—Nate Schmidt has faced his former teammates before. Twice, in fact, with the Golden Knights downing the Caps in each of the teams’ regular season meetings.
This week, though, it’s going to be different.
This week, the stakes will be significantly higher as Schmidt lines up opposite the Caps, the organization that signed him as a free agent out of Minnesota, the one that patiently developed him, the club that liked where his game was headed…but not quite enough to protect him in the expansion draft.
“It was a little bit bittersweet,” Schmidt said of being left exposed. “You thought that you had done enough to put yourself in position to still be in Washington. At the same time, it was sad to leave a good group but [I’m] happy to have had an opportunity [here]. We could all start over [as Golden Knights]. The perception of your game could be remodeled and redone. That’s the coolest part about what we’ve been able to do in Vegas.”
It's safe to say that things worked out well for both Schmidt and the team he was forced to depart.
Schmidt is the Golden Knights’ ice time leader, skating almost 25 minutes per game, or 2-1/2 minutes more than any other Golden Knight. The 26-year-old also ranks second among Vegas defensemen in points with six (two goals, four assists) in 15 games.
Alex Ovechkin and the Caps, meanwhile, are in the championship round for the first time since 1998. Overcoming the loss of Schmidt wasn’t instantaneous. Actually, Washington’s group of blue liners didn’t find their collective game until GM Brian MacLellan acquired Michal Kempny near the trade deadline.
Schmidt, a fan favorite in Washington who was also among the most popular players in the dressing room, said he’s exchanged text messages with several of his former teammates since the Caps eliminated the Lightning. But he was also quick to point out that it’ll be “all business” once the series begins Monday night at T-Mobile Arena.
“When you face them in the regular season, you get the emotions out,” Schmidt said of getting used to playing the Caps. “I’m going to have a lot of fun with it. I hope that they’re ready for me to be me on the ice. It should be a great series.”
Schmidt also joked that he’ll have his head on a swivel when Tom Wilson steps onto the ice.
“You know Tommy Wilson is going to be flying down the wall sometime, [so] you got to keep your head up.” — Nate Schmidt on facing his former teammates in the #StanleyCup Final. #ALLCAPS pic.twitter.com/qQU4W8ftKv— Tarik El-Bashir⌨️🎙🏒 (@TarikNBCS) May 27, 2018
In addition to attempting to avoid oncoming forecheckers, Schmidt also figures to see his share of Ovechkin. Asked how he plans to play the Caps' captain, Schmidt said he hopes all of his years practicing against No. 8 will serve him well in this series.
“He’s a beast. ...I’ve played against him in practice for a long time, so hopefully I know a few tendencies of his.” — former #Caps defenseman Nate Schmidt on facing Alex Ovechkin in the #StanleyCup Final. pic.twitter.com/OWBKpAXCs6— Tarik El-Bashir⌨️🎙🏒 (@TarikNBCS) May 28, 2018
It’s going to be weird for Schmidt and his former teammates alike. And, at times, things could get a bit awkward. All that said, Schmidt says he can’t wait for the Final to begin, in part, because he knows so well what it means to both teams—and cities—to be here.
“I love it,” he said with his trademark smile. “It’s going to be great. At the end of the day, you want to so say it’s another game. But it means a lot to this city for us to be here. Who could have scripted this at the expansion draft last year? I don’t think anybody could have. It’s pretty special for both teams. For the proposed window to be back open again in Washington and for us to be here as an expansion [team].”
“This,” he added, “is what you play for.”
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