It’s an historic, memorable run. Everything has come together for this team right when it needed it and this is a season fans won’t soon forget. The hope is that this team is victorious in the Stanley Cup Final and the 2017-18 season is capped off with an epic ending.
Which team am I talking about?
Both. Although the big story is the Vegas Golden Knights reaching the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season (first time since the St. Louis Blues in 1968, which was an expansion team-filled conference winner), the Washington Capitals are still seeking the franchise’s first NHL championship. Much like the first-year Golden Knights, the Capitals are yet to even win a Stanley Cup Final game. Either way, history will be made even after the first game Monday night.
It’s supreme goaltending against a powerhouse offense. It’s should have won by now vs. what are they doing here? It’s going to be a memorable Final no matter how you slice it.
What Will It Take for Ovechkin to Lift the Cup?
Consistency. It’s no secret that Alex Ovechkin has come up short in the postseason. In fact, before the 2018 playoffs began, the superstar Russian only accumulated 21 goals and 40 points in his previous 60 playoff games since 2012 (0.67 points per game). Compare these numbers to rival captain Sidney Crosby’s 27 goals and 82 points in 86 games in the same span (0.95 points per game), and it’s easy to see that Washington’s weapon has been more of a butter knife than a machete. This year’s playoffs, though, have been a different story.
The Great 8 has been a heat-seeking missile this time around, amassing 12 goals and 22 points, both of which rank second in the league, in 19 games played (1.16 points per game). As one can clearly derive, it’s not just the goals that are coming, either. This is just the second time in Ovechkin’s 10-postseason career that he has reached double digits in assists (10).
So what has been different? Part of his success has been head coach Barry Trotz’s willingness to take center Nicklas Backstrom off the top line, replacing him with Ovechkin’s countryman, Evgeni Kuznetsov, and adding the feisty Tom Wilson to the right wing. This allows the Capitals to have a more balanced attack, with Backstrom pivoting Jakub Vrana and T.J. Oshie on the second line, creating more confusion for the opposing team. With two high-end scoring lines, the Capitals are a force to be reckoned with even when Ovechkin isn’t on the ice.
For the Capitals captain to continue his success, he has to be the force everyone knows he is. In past playoffs, he wasn’t a noticeable player on the ice at times, often dumping the puck off to teammates and trying to sneak into an open area. Ovechkin does his best work when he is noticeable. He thrives in a high-intensity environment, grinding in the corners to get the puck to the net rather than setting up for a nice play. Of course, his nine power-play points have been a welcomed addition, as well.
If the Capitals are to knock off the Cinderella Golden Knights, the victories start and end with Ovechkin. If he doesn’t continue to be the wrecking ball he has been all postseason, it won’t be a long series for Washington.
Is Braden Holtby Ready for This Pressure?
Yes. If you think it’s been an odd playoff year (No Chicago, Winnipeg vs. Vegas in the Western Final, to name a few), think about it from Holtby’s vantage point. When the playoffs began, the Capitals’ starter was on the bench in place of backup Phillip Grubauer.
After the Capitals lost the first two games against the Columbus Blue Jackets, on Capitals’ ice nonetheless, Holtby was again awarded the key to the crease. From there, the Capitals went on quite the run, winning 10 of their next 12 games, defeating the Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins in the process (and taking a 2-0 series lead on the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final). Holtby was at the forefront for his team, stopping 333 of 354 shots (.927 save percentage) with a 2.04 goals-against average.
After losing three consecutive games to the Lightning, Holtby again raised his game to another level, shutting out Tampa Bay in Games 6 and 7, stopping all 53 shots he faced.
Although Holtby has never appeared in a Stanley Cup Final game, he has already proven to have big-game experience. Before this year’s playoffs, he had never played in a conference final game either. With his team’s backs against the wall, he played some dazzling hockey to solidify a balanced team game to close out the Eastern Final.
With Holtby’s play seeming to hit a high point in his career, it almost seems the Capitals are destined to finally capture hockey’s ultimate prize. However, destiny also seems to be on the opposing team’s side.
Who is This Version of Marc-Andre Fleury? Where’s the Real Fleury?
He’s riding a high and he’s not coming down any time soon. It wasn’t long ago that everybody, including the Penguins’ brass, believed Fleury wouldn’t lead a team to the Stanley Cup again after winning in 2009. It seemed that every postseason, he became a shell of his regular season self. He posted GAAs as bad as 4.63 and save percentages as poor as .834 (2012).
How a change of scenery can make a world of difference.
Since being picked by the Golden Knights in the expansion draft, Fleury has been the face of the team as the default superstar. The 33-year-old netminder is capping off a memorable season (29-13-4, 2.24 GAA, .927 save percentage and four shutouts) with an even better postseason (12-3, 1.68 GAA, .947 save percentage and a league-leading four shutouts) — quite the change of pace for the French Canadian.
He’s proving his worth regularly, too. Playing in every minute of Vegas’ playoff run, Fleury has seen the most shots of any team that remained after the first round (33.70), but the Knights have allowed the least amount of goals against of said teams (1.80). He’s not letting the easy ones get through, nor is he allowing teams to expose his defense with a flashy goal. He’s looked steady in every moment of every game and it’s allowed his defense to move the puck confidently without worry of a turnover leading to a quick goal against.
When a netminder makes saves such as these, anyone can see why a team is playing so hard in front of him.
Will History be Made for Sin City and the NHL?
Yes. The Golden Knights are a boulder rolling down a mountain and the Capitals are, unfortunately, a stalled car at the bottom of the hill.
The Capitals are steamrolling and would likely have defeated any other Western Conference team in the Stanley Cup Final, but this year belongs to Vegas. The tragedy that took place days before the regular season began was a rallying point for native Deryk Engelland and his teammates, never looking back at who they were supposed to be. They have changed the game for future expansion teams and are proving that drive, determination and sticking to a game plan can truly be the difference to a roster.
Granted, the expansion process is no longer scraping the bottom of the barrel, allowing for 30-goal scorers like Jonathan Marchessault and James Neal to be drafted. It’s a team of NHL-worthy players, not castoffs from other teams’ fourth lines.
The team is winning by committee, with every line and pairing contributing positive minutes. Just take a look at how the defense’s minutes are distributed: Nate Schmidt leads with 24:53 average time on ice while Jon Merrill, ranking last on the blue line, averages 15:44. Compare this to Washington’s average time on ice for defensemen — the committee defense is more of a team effort than the NHL has seen in a Stanley Cup Final roster.
This is the type of Final that goes down in history — similar to the Penguins’ successful Cup defense last June — as an expansion team has never been as dominant as the Golden Knights have been. And it’s not a hot streak; it’s the real deal.
Stanley Cup Final Prediction
Washington Capitals vs Vegas Golden Knights: Golden Knights in 6. Vegas has proven throughout this playoff year that they can play any style. Whether it’s a defensive game (Kings), an offensive display (Sharks) or a mix of physicality and potent scoring (Jets), they will come out on top. The Capitals have to hope that this core can come out as Eastern Conference champions again. Unfortunately for the 2018 version of Ovechkin & Co., they are on the wrong side of destiny.
To shop the entire xHockeyProducts store, click your link below: