Stanley Cup Final Preview: Three key matchups to watch

HC at Noon ranks the best defencemen on each Stanley Cup finalist team, and with no superstar on either side, wonder how they'll measure up against each other heading into the big dance.

The playoffs have a funny way of playing with your mind and clouding your perception of time.

It feels like a lifetime ago that the Washington Capitals were on the ropes and facing the proposition of another premature post-season exit after losing both games at home to the Columbus Blue Jackets to start their opening-round series. Since then they’ve switched goalies, remarkably stole eight of their 10 games on the road, and slayed every old personal demon they may have had standing in their way by getting past the Penguins and scoring more than two goals en route to winning a Game 7.

And even though the Vegas Golden Knights picked their roster 11 months ago, it feels like yesterday that we were gearing up for the expansion draft process. Everything that’s miraculously transpired in Vegas this season has all been part of one big whirlwind ride.

The paths the two Cup finalists took to this point have been wildly different, but the common thread uniting them is just how unlikely it is that they’re here. While it’s truly shocking that the Golden Knights have made it all this way in their first year in the league, the fact that this incarnation of the Capitals is the one to finally get over the hump and sustain playoff success after years of failure is, weirdly, almost equally stunning.

That’s just one small sample of what makes this particular final look and feel special.

On the ice, there promises to be an equal amount of intrigue. Both teams come in playing hockey at a supremely high level. They’ve not only held their ground against seemingly superior opponents on paper in the Conference Final, but actually took it to them at times in a surprising turn of events. Looking ahead to how these two will now match up against each other from an Xs and Os perspective, there are a few particularly notable leverage points worth considering that will likely determine the outcome of the series.

With a few days off before puck drop of Game 1 on Monday, let’s use some of that time to sink our teeth into a few of the tastiest on-ice subplots the Stanley Cup Final is serving up.

Dimitri Filipovic provides entertaining and thoughtful dialogue about the game of hockey with an analytical edge. Not as nerdy as it sounds.

1. Marc-Andre Fleury versus History

Here’s a fun exercise: let’s take a look at a list of the most negatively impactful goalie performances we’ve seen over the course of a single post-season in the past decade of playoff hockey.

To sort through the rubble we’re using Corsica’s ‘Goals Saved Above Average’ measure, which essentially quantifies how many additional goals a league average netminder would’ve theoretically surrendered (or prevented) under the same workload of shot quality and quantity.

Player Year Games Played Goals Saved Above Average
Marc-Andre Fleury 2009-2010 13 -10.88
Ilya Bryzgalov 2013-2014 9 -8.33
Marc-Andre Fleury 2011-2012 6 -8.25
Jonathan Quick 2009-2010 6 -8.15
Brian Elliott 2009-2010 4 -7.23
Evgeni Nabokov 2012-2013 6 -7.14
Nikolai Khabibulin 2008-2009 15 -6.57
Ilya Bryzgalov 2010-2011 4 -6.36

A lot of things went wrong simultaneously in Pittsburgh during that 4-5 year window following their first championship in the Sidney Crosby Era. But despite all of the injuries and lack of depth to properly complement their stars, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that those Penguins teams should’ve enjoyed more playoff success than they did if it weren’t for the catastrophically porous goaltending they received.

That same agony in defeat is a large part of what makes sports so great, though. As bad as things can get at times, there’s typically an opportunity for redemption in the future that’ll make it all sweeter. Memories tend to be short, and all that matters and is ultimately remembered is what happens next. For the Penguins organization, those memories of wasted seasons with generational talent have been largely washed away with the glory of their most recent back-to-back titles.

Marc-Andre Fleury’s nadir in the 2011-12 series against the Flyers and 2012-13 against the Islanders is what makes his transcendent stretch of play this post-season even more special. Fleury bore the brunt of the blame for Pittsburgh’s past playoff failures so, on a team full of heartening redemption stories, he has assumed the figurehead role because no one is more powerful and crucial to their success.

Here’s the flip side version of that list above, highlighting the goalies who saved their teams the largest number of theoretical goals against over the course of a single post-season:

Player Year Games Played Goals Saved Above Average
Jonas Hiller 2008-2009 13 17.75
Marc-Andre Fleury 2017-2018 15 17.56
Tuukka Rask 2012-2013 22 15.91
Tim Thomas 2010-2011 25 15.43
Jonathan Quick 2011-2012 20 13.6
Mike Smith 2011-2012 16 12.52
Henrik Lundqvist 2013-2014 25 10.96
Henrik Lundqvist 2011-2012 20 10.57
Jonathan Quick 2012-2013 18 10.14
Braden Holtby 2014-2015 13 9.66
Henrik Lundqvist 2014-2015 19 9.48
Henrik Lundqvist 2012-2013 22 9.12
Pekka Rinne 2016-2017 22 8.9

Fleury has been nothing short of spectacular, so it’s no surprise to see him near the top of the board here. He comes into the Stanley Cup Final with a .947 save percentage in 15 games, which is only behind Jacques Plante’s .950 in 1968-69 and Johnny Bower’s .949 in 1962-63 all-time amongst goalies with at least 10 playoff appearances in a given season.

The Golden Knights have a lot of things going for them right now, but trying to attribute too much of their success to factors beyond Fleury’s play is a dangerous game. There are certainly things they’re doing that the rest of the league should be taking note of and trying to incorporate themselves, but it’s remarkable how good everything else looks when the goalie stops nearly every puck.

What happens if he cools off and comes back down to earth even slightly? It’s worth remembering that Pekka Rinne came into last year’s final with a .941 save percentage of his own, before melting down, being pulled twice, and stopping less than 89 per cent of the shots the Penguins threw at him.

Just because something has been happening up until a certain point, doesn’t necessarily mean it will continue. The good news for Vegas is that it only really needs this to last for somewhere between four and seven more games. Considering Fleury’s only really had to play 61 total games this year between the regular season and playoffs, and that the Golden Knights have afforded themselves plenty of additional time to rest by ending their series quickly, it doesn’t necessarily seem all that far-fetched.

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2. Dmitry Orlov and the Capitals defencemen versus The Golden Knights Forecheck

It feels strange to say given the wealth of name-brand star power this series possesses on paper, but there’s a very plausible case to be made that Dmitry Orlov could be the most pivotal skater of them all. This is particularly true when the game is being played at five-on-five, where his unique set of skills in the transition game are precisely what the Capitals will need a healthy dose of to help combat against the Golden Knights’ suffocating forecheck.

Throughout this post-season we’ve seen Vegas make a killing with the roadblock they set up in the neutral zone, using their wealth of team speed to turn defence into offence by forcing turnovers. Rather than using their size to physically dislodge defencemen from the puck in the way a conventional forecheck once might have, the Knights are instead tremendously adept at closing the air space with their foot speed, and then using their proximity to the puck carriers to deflect passes and create changes in possession.

That was on full display in the Conference Final, where they routinely gave an otherwise perfectly capable group of Jets defencemen fits when they went back to retrieve the puck and tried to exit the defensive zone. Here’s a great example of that in action. Vegas’ forecheckers twice forced Winnipeg’s defencemen to make a decision quicker than they ideally would’ve liked and, eventually, it forced a deflection that led directly to a crucial goal.

The Jets were certainly the more skilled of the two teams, and showed that they could skate with the Knights. The issue for Winnipeg was they couldn’t do it frequently enough, largely due to how often they were forced to stop and start, sputtering through the neutral zone. It’s remarkable what an effective forecheck can do to force a team out of its element, and unfortunately for Winnipeg they never really were able to come up with an alternative that was both effective and repeatable enough to change that dynamic.

It’ll be paramount for the Capitals to be better in that area of the game than their predecessors were, and based on what we’ve seen from them in the first three rounds a lot of that heavy lifting will be funnelled through Orlov.

It can’t necessarily be deemed a surprise that he’s so fundamental to Washington’s success given a) how effective he’s been playing top pair minutes against the other team’s best players alongside Matt Niskanen over the past two years and b) how handsomely he’s now being paid for his services (playing on a contract worth north of $30 million). But the new heights to which he’s taken his game this post-season is still staggering.

With Niskanen and Orlov on the ice at five-on-five these playoffs, the Capitals are controlling 55.8 per cent of the shot attempts, 56.3 per cent of the shots on goal, and 55.3 per cent of the goals scored. While Niskanen is a fantastic example of what a modern day defensive defenceman should look like, Orlov’s ability to move the puck effectively has been instrumental in getting the flow of play in a desirable direction for Washington. In the Conference Final against the Lightning, no Capitals defenceman shouldered a larger volume of breakout attempts, nor did anyone do more with those opportunities than Orlov:

Player Exit Attempts Exits with Possession Successful Exit %
Matt Niskanen 62 32 51.61
Michal Kempny 53 24 45.28
Dmitry Orlov 88 51 57.95
Christian Djoos 33 15 45.45
Brooks Orpik 37 11 29.73
John Carlson 81 40 49.38

Like any dynamic puck mover, Orlov is still prone to the occasional gaffe in both decision making and execution. When he does make a mistake, it gets magnified because of how undeniably horrible it looks aesthetically when it leads directly to a scoring chance or goal against.

In large part that’s because he tries things some of his peers wouldn’t dare attempt, and as long as the positives continue to outweigh the negatives that’s all that ultimately matters here. As dangerous as it is to be loose with the puck against a Golden Knights team that’s as good at forcing turnovers and capitalizing on them as it gets, the Capitals are going to need Orlov to continue making those plays. Washington has plenty of firepower up front, but it won’t matter if they’re never able to actually find their way into advantageous transition opportunities.

3. Power versus Power

Something that’s been interesting to track this post-season is how willing Gerard Gallant has been to not only accept the concept of going power versus power, but how he’s embraced and pursued it. Rather than trying to free up his best players to feast against inferior competition in cushier minutes, he’s instead leaned on them rather heavily to flank the other team’s best.

He’s especially relied upon his shutdown pairing of Nate Schmidt and Brayden McNabb to shadow the opponent’s top line, carefully crafting their even strength usage so that it lined up with the likes of Anze Kopitar, Joe Pavelski, and Mark Scheifele as closely as possible in each series. Gallant’s counterpart, Barry Trotz, certainly favours Niskanen and Orlov to do the same, although he’s been more willing to spread their minutes around to get them out there as often as possible, regardless of who the other team has on the ice.

Here’s a comparison of the percentage of their five-on-five minutes spent against the de facto top line by round:

Nate Schmidt Matt Niskanen
Round 1 70.94 53.39
Round 2 62.08 53.94
Round 3 67.36 39.68

While those top two shutdown pairings will surely continue to see a heavy dose of the other team’s top offensive weapons in the Stanley Cup Final, what’ll be far more enlightening for who’s winning the matchup tug of war in this series is the deployment of those forwards.

Based on what we’ve seen leading up to this point, Gallant will surely try to have William Karlsson’s line out there as often as possible against the lethal offensive combination of Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznestov. Trotz will in turn presumably try to counter by freeing them from that matchup, and instead put those defensive responsibilities on the plate of Nicklas Backstrom’s unit.

One of the best parts of a playoff series can be the chess match that develops as it progresses. It’ll be fascinating to see whether or not those same trends continue and, if they do, which of the two coaches is able to more regularly get the matchups they’re trying to target to not only get the most out of their best players, but also attempt to neutralize the other team’s analog.

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