Of all the potential Stanley Cup finals, this had to be among the most unlikely in 2018.
In one corner you have the Washington Capitals, who, though they’ve been one of the best NHL teams for the better part of a decade, were supposed to be having a reset year. GM Brian MacLellan’s team was all-in the past two years, but was forced by salary cap constraints to shed some experience and skill over the summer, which projected a thinner, weaker lineup. Head coach Barry Trotz has been a lame duck coach all season and still doesn’t have an extension.
Despite all this, the Caps won their third-straight division title, defeated their nemesis in the Pittsburgh Penguins to reach their first conference final of the Alex Ovechkin era, and are now in their first Stanley Cup Final since 1998.
In the other corner we have a team that didn’t even have a roster one year ago. The Vegas Golden Knights are writing one of the more improbable stories in NHL and North American sports history, drawing some comparisons to Leicester City’s Premier League championship in 2015.
When Vegas finally did pick its team last June, no one saw this kind of immediate success. Part of the expansion draft process was about accumulating assets and, especially, futures in the form of draft picks and prospects to set the team up for long-term stability. And though they intended to build a competitive and exciting team right away, a Stanley Cup finalist was out of the question. Yet, here we are.
There are all sorts of great storylines in this series. Marc-Andre Fleury is having an historically excellent playoff run that could put him in the Conn Smythe running, win or lose. The entire Golden Knights roster is made up of players cast off from other teams, but those like Jonathan Marchessault and Alex Tuch — whose former teams paid Vegas extra assets to make sure they took them — have an even bigger chip on their shoulder and are coming through. Ovechkin, defined by some for his team’s playoff failures, is now four wins away from Stanley Cup immortality and has been a key performer for the Caps, scoring the series-winning goal versus the Lightning. Trotz, after 15 years building a successful Nashville Predators franchise from the ground up, is in his first Cup Final in his fourth year as Washington’s bench boss. Both GMs are from Guelph, Ont., and were teammates at Bowling Green University in the 1980s.
Washington, which for years prided itself on an explosive offence, has mostly found this success with a focus on team defence and the excellent netminding from Braden Holtby. The Golden Knights are here because of their excellent forecheck, the quick looseness with which they play the game and Fleury’s otherworldly performance.
Something’s gotta give. Either way, one terrific story will come to a sad ending, and the other will write history.
Determined by percentiles created for a variety of statistics and weighed equally to give each team a grade out of 10 for offence and defence (seven for 5-on-5 and three for special teams). These numbers are then averaged to come up with a power number to measure a team’s all-around play.
|TEAM||OFFENCE (rank)||DEFENCE (rank)||POWER NUMBER (rank)|
|Vegas||5.21 (16th)||5.61 (11th)||5.41 (12th)|
|Washington||5.62 (13th)||3.56 (23rd)||4.59 (19th)|
ADVANCED STATS (Playoffs)
Vegas: 49.82 5on5 CF% (8th), .960 5on5 Sv% (1st), 8.53 5on5 Sh% (3rd)
Washington: 50.35 5on5 CF% (7th), .930 5on5 Sv% (6th), 7.69 5on5 Sh% (8th)
TEAM STATS (Playoffs)
Vegas: 17.6 PP% (10th), 82.5 PK% (4th), 2.87 GF/GP (9th), 1.80 GA/GP (2nd)
Washington: 29.8 PP% (2nd), 75.0 PK% (10th), 3.44 GF/GP (2nd), 2.61 GA/GP (5th)
Vegas: Amazingly, the Golden Knights haven’t been bitten too badly by the injury bug. The biggest loss so far has been left winger William Carrier, who recorded three points in 37 regular-season games and didn’t have a point through the first two rounds. Carrier missed Game 6 against the Sharks and the entirety of the Winnipeg Jets series. He’s skating again and could be available, though Vegas hasn’t missed a beat without him and could ride a winning lineup.
David Perron missed two games of the Western Conference Final, but that was due to illness and not injury. In the two games since he returned, his workload was slashed, but as he gets back to full health those minutes should return to normal levels, as should his production.
Vegas has been so lucky with injuries mostly because they’ve gotten through to the final so fast. The Golden Knights haven’t had a Game 7 yet, and only one of their three series have gone beyond Game 5.
“You have to have a healthy hockey team, and I think the biggest thing is we’ve won our series in four games, six games and five games,” coach Gerard Gallant told media. “We had a lot of rest between series to heal up some minor injuries, and our team is fresh.
“There’s not too often you can say going into the Stanley Cup Final that your team is pretty fresh, and has very few minor injuries. Having time between series to get ready for the next one is a big part of having a chance to win.”
If injuries do hit, Vegas has some decent options to turn to. Tomas Tatar scored once in two games when he filled in for Perron and if Carrier is healthy, either he would return or Ryan Reaves would stay on the fourth line for a physical presence.
Washington: When top-six centre Nicklas Backstrom was injured against Pittsburgh and had to miss Game 6, it seemed to set the Penguins up for a comeback. The Caps headed to Game 6 with a 3-2 series advantage, but it was the kind of situation they had been in and blown before. Without Backstrom, Washington was down one of its best players.
The Caps went on to win that game and clinched the series, but Backstrom missed the first three games of the East Final with the hand injury as well. What appeared to be a death knell turned into nothing more than a minor inconvenience as the Capitals went 3-1 without the Swede. They lost the first two games after he returned against Tampa Bay, but in Game 6 Backstrom record two primary assists to help lead the Caps to a 3-0 win, before potting the empty-netter in Game 7.
The Capitals also missed 23-year-old Andre Burakovsky for most of the Columbus series and all of the Pittsburgh series. Much was expected from Burakovsky this season, after he notched 17 goals two years ago. But he played through a few injuries and was limited to 56 games, so he’s become more of a third-liner for this team and was even a healthy scratch in Game 5 of the East Final. Prior to Game 7, he talked about how he struggled mentally to stay on his game as he returned from injury — but he scored two huge goals in the Conference Final series-clincher and you have to wonder if that inspires renewed confidence just in time for the Cup Final.
Devante Smith-Pelly blocked a shot in Game 7 versus the Lightning and did not return. After the game, Trotz seemed optimistic that the grinder would be good to go on Monday.
Vegas: The top story for the Vegas Golden Knights is, simply, that the Vegas Golden Knights are in the Stanley Cup Final. It is, of course, revisionist history for anyone to suggest this team was set up for instant success by team-friendly expansion draft rules because most projected Vegas to miss the playoffs in Year 1. Even owner Bill Foley, the most optimistic fan of them all, expected his team to make the playoffs in Year 3 and challenge for the Cup by Year 6. Now, they’re just four wins away from lifting it right away.
“We don’t have high expectations for this year,” Foley told ESPN.com back in August. “We’re going to be competitive. If we’re going to lose a game, we’d like to lose by a goal or two, not lose by five or six. We don’t want to be a walkover team. We want to be competitive, we want to be entertaining on the ice, we want to score some goals.
“We have some really good players, but we’re not deep like a lot of teams are in terms of four lines of forwards and two or three lines of defencemen. But we got some really good players in the expansion draft. So we just need do well for a couple years, then make the playoffs in three years as we start transitioning in some of these younger guys — like Shea Theodore and Alex Tuch and Jake Bischoff. We’ll be pretty good in three years and we’ll make a run in five or six.”
The Golden Knights are a relentless team on the forecheck and that creates high-quality chances on the offensive end. They are great at getting other teams out of position, creating havoc and buzzing all over with tremendous speed. Vegas brings that quickness and intensity across all four lines, but when it comes to scoring, they are far closer to being a one-line team.
It’s not only shocking that Vegas is here, but incredible how easily they disposed of the Western Conference. They’ve lost just three games to this point and have shocked the hockey world and shaken it to the core.
The Golden Knights started the season as 500-1 long shots to win the Cup and are now so close to paying out huge to their early adopters. If they can win four more, the Golden Knights would complete perhaps the greatest, most improbable season in NHL history.
Washington: The franchise has never won the Stanley Cup, but this is all about Ovechkin. Entering the NHL at the same time as Sidney Crosby, The Great 8 has watched his rival win multiple Cups and gold medals, while Ovechkin has settled for individual awards and a terrific career that likely already has him Hall of Fame-bound. But although he always showed up in the post-season, he gained the reputation in some corners for not being a playoff player because his teams were never able to break through.
It’s fitting, then, that Ovechkin got this iteration of the Caps to the final, an underdog group with lower expectations than almost any Caps team since they won their first of three Presidents’ Trophies in 2010. Ovechkin’s 12 goals this post-season lead the Caps and he’s the highest-scoring player still alive in these playoffs. Ovechkin has been a playoff player the entire time and is without a doubt the best active player who hasn’t yet won a Stanley Cup. This is his moment.
“Can’t wait. We all can’t wait. We’re all excited. It’s huge,” Ovechkin told Sportsnet’s Kyle Bukauskas in his post-Game 7 interview.
“It means everything.”
CONN SMYTHE CANDIDATES
1. Marc-Andre Fleury: We’re at the point now where even if Vegas loses in the Stanley Cup Final, its goalie could still win playoff MVP if he finishes strong and the series goes six or seven games. As good as Vegas’ forecheck has been this post-season it’s hard to imagine the Golden Knights would have made as quick work of their opponents as they have through three rounds without Fleury playing at the top of his game. Last year Fleury was thrust into the starting job when Matt Murray sustained an injury prior to Game 1 in Round 1 and he helped carry the Penguins a few rounds before Murray returned, ending Fleury’s time in Pittsburgh. His performance this season has not only dwarfed what he did last year, but Fleury has a chance to finish with the best playoff save percentage of any goalie to appear in at least 10 games since 1969.
Fleury has a league-best .947 save percentage to this point, facing an average of 33.6 shots per game. A few goalies have been over .940 in the past and the best salary-cap era playoff save percentage is Jonathan Quick’s .946 mark from 2011-12. But nobody with at least 10 games has finished the playoffs with a save percentage better than Fleury’s .947 since Jacques Plante in 1968-69 with the St. Louis Blues. Fleury also leads all goalies with four shutouts. It’s unlikely he’ll tie or break Martin Brodeur’s record of seven, but with one more, Fleury would be just the sixth netminder in NHL history to record five shutouts in a Stanley Cup playoff run.
2. Jonathan Marchessault: If anyone on this Golden Knights team leaps Fleury, something amazing needs to happen. But Marchessault certainly appears capable of it. The Florida Panthers cast off leads the Golden Knights with eight goals and 18 points in 15 games and had three multi-point games against both the Jets and Sharks.
3. William Karlsson: The most surprising breakout performer for Vegas, Karlsson has continued his unfathomably good season with six goals and 13 points in 15 games. His shooting percentage, which everyone expects to tumble next season, has started to come down in the playoffs (23.4 to 13.6), but by averaging nearly three shots a game he’s still getting enough chances to be in good positions to score. It’s a long shot that either Marchessault or Karlsson will eclipse what Fleury has done, but both have shown game-breaking potential that could shift the series and radically change the Conn Smythe outlook.
1. Braden Holtby: When the Caps started their Round 1 series against Columbus, Philipp Grubauer was in net, usurping the No. 1 job from Holtby, who struggled through his worst NHL season to date. But after dropping the first two games of that series, Trotz went back to his ace and Holtby has been lights-out since. With a .925 save percentage, Holtby isn’t having the best post-season of his career, but he’s been up to the task when the Caps have needed him and closed out the high-scoring Lightning with back-to-back shutouts.
In both the 2015 and 2016 playoffs Holtby led the league in save percentage for all goalies with at least 10 games played, and both times he was over .940. In fact, Holtby has the third-best post-season save percentage over the past four seasons combined at .930, behind only Craig Anderson (.932) and, you guessed it, Fleury (.933).
2. Alex Ovechkin: He’s got the second-most points overall and most goals of anyone left standing, so Ovechkin is front and centre for Conn Smythe consideration among Caps skaters. If he does it, Ovechkin will need to loom large in the Cup Final, with a few more goals at key times. Ovechkin has goals in 10 of Washington’s 19 playoff games and points in 14 of them. His whole career has led to this series, so expect him to be hungry and a difference-maker.
3. Evgeny Kuznetsov: If Ovechkin does have a hard time producing against the Golden Knights, the Capitals have another star Russian forward scoring and playing at a high level who is dangerous enough to take over a series. Kuznetsov is actually the points (24) leader on the Caps and averages the most time on ice among their forwards (21:31). And for all the shots Ovechkin takes, Kuznetsov is neck and neck with him there, too, registering 78 shots (Ovechkin has 80). Kuznetsov is also on a 10-game point streak, coming in hot to the Final.
Vegas: Fleury has been the team’s backbone and the top line has driven the offence, but the Golden Knights need more offensive pop from their second line. For as much as Vegas has been lauded as a four-line team, most of the goals came from the top two lines all season. Only one player in the bottom-six, Alex Tuch, scored more than 11 goals and 30 points on the season. Tuch, a 22-year-old plucked from the Minnesota Wild, had two goals against the Jets, which was second to only Marchessault in Round 3.
Against a Washington team defence that has been stifling these playoffs, the Golden Knights will need to get offensive contributions from more than just their top line, if only to lighten the load on Fleury. It would make life easier if Line 2 — with James Neal, David Perron and Erik Haula — got going, but if it doesn’t, Tuch could put together an unforgettable performance that helps the expansion team win it all. The 18th-overall pick in the 2014 draft, Tuch, like many on this team, hadn’t been given much of a shot by his former team. It’s happening now and on the NHL’s biggest stage.
Washington: The Los Angeles Kings were supposed to be too big and tough for the Golden Knights, and they were swept away. The Sharks were supposed to have more skill and be able to skate with Vegas and they were dispatched in six. The Winnipeg Jets were supposed to be the complete package and lopsided favourites to get to the Cup Final, but Vegas delivered Winnipeg its first four-game losing streak of the season and eliminated them in five.
Well, there is nothing obviously special or unique about this Capitals team, but they’ve found a way here with not just terrific netminding, but a renewed focus on defence. Washington is allowing an average of just 28.2 shots-against per game, the second-lowest rate in these playoffs after Pittsburgh, and one of just three teams below 30. But Vegas will challenge this with how aggressively they attack their opponent and force them into mistakes. The Golden Knights don’t take a ton of shots on net, but they tend to get more high-quality chances. Can this Washington defence withstand the relentless Golden Knights or, if not, will Holtby be able to steal a Cup? The Capitals have beaten three tough offences to get here, but they haven’t yet seen the kind of attack Vegas will throw their way.