The final battle of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs is set to kick off on Monday, May 28. Sixteen teams embarked on their quest for the Cup back in mid-April, and after a month and a half of play, only two teams remain standing.
The Vegas Golden Knights will represent the Western Conference after defeating the Winnipeg Jets in five games and claiming a conference title in their very first NHL season. The Washington Capitals are coming out of the Eastern Conference red-hot, reaching their second finals in team history.
League followers thought it was crazy to believe the Golden Knights would continue their Cinderella season this deep into the playoffs. On the flip side, the “Caps’ year” mantra was as laughable to as many as it was a guarantee to others.
With so many great storylines surrounding this series, and the fact that hockey fans will watch a team hoist their first ever Stanley Cup no matter the outcome, let’s break down the final showdown:
The “Golden Misfits”
Everyone knows the story, and it never gets old. Vegas hasn’t had a hockey team for a full year, and the Golden Knights are four wins away from bringing Sin City its first taste of hockey glory.
When general manager George McPhee assembled his troops in the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft, nobody really expected much to come of the Golden Knights in year one. Clearly, the Knights had other plans, as they were consistently talked about as one of the best teams in the league on their way to a Pacific division title in the regular season.
A team comprised of many players who arguably never really got a fair shake, or perhaps were undervalued with their previous teams, the Golden Knights have adopted their “Golden Misfits” nickname as a way to resemble the unity of a team full of players who were brought together by similar circumstance.
If there is one thing that can’t be denied about this team, it’s that they play hard for every minute of every period, and they do it for each other. The chip on the shoulder that everyone on the roster seems to carry translates perfectly to the speed and aggression they bring to the ice.
The Knights come into the final round riding on the shoulders of netminder Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury is no stranger to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, as he has won three Stanley Cups himself, all while playing with the Pittsburgh Penguins who drafted Fleury No. 1 overall back in 2003.
Fleury seems to be as close to a lock for the Conn Smythe Trophy as you can get if the Golden Knights take home the Cup, as he has been an absolute brick wall for Vegas game in and game out. Fleury will enter Monday’s game with a .947 save percentage, and a 1.68 goals against average.
It’s no secret how important goaltending is, especially in the playoffs, and the Golden Knights are well aware of how lucky they are to have Fleury in net. Fleury will have his work cut out for him as he will face the scoring tandem of Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov who come into the series with 11 and 12 goals respectively so far in the playoffs.
Fleury will have plenty of help up front with a speedy and crafty offensive attack led by William Karlsson. Karlsson was third in the league this year with 43 goals, and has proven himself to be a force to be reckoned with amongst the league. Joined by veterans James Neal, Reilly Smith, and Jonathan Marchessault, the Golden Knights’ offense has continued to wear down opposing defenses with their relentless forecheck and consistent pressure to create turnovers that result in scoring chances.
A defensive core that loves to bully the opposition is led by former Washington Capital Nate Schmidt, who had a career-best year with 36 regular-season points. Look for this young and physical defensive lineup to add to the scoring efforts in this series with some great offensive talent on the back end.
The Washington Capitals, finally getting the monkey off their back, come into this series after an electric win as they shut out the Tampa Bay Lightning on the road in a game seven matchup that, thanks to some rough history, had Caps fans biting their nails for all three periods.
The key for the Caps will be their depth both on offense and defense. Everyone knows what studs like Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie have to offer, but it will be players like Jakub Vrana, Devante Smith-Pelly and Brett Connolly amongst others players spread across all four lines that could really be a problem for Vegas to match.
The Capitals have scorers on all lines, and have multiple players like Vrana and another young forward in Andre Burakovsky that they can roll through any line combination to add speed and playmaking abilities to match with the big guns.
Tom Wilson has been the heart and soul for the Capitals, and is not shy to being the muscle for the team as well. Wilson has fit well on the Capitals’ first line, playing opposite of Alex Ovechkin and next to center Evgeny Kuznetsov. Wilson has posted 12 points in 16 games, and a healthy 23 penalty minutes.
Wilson was suspended three games in the series against Pittsburgh for a controversial hit on Zach Aston-Reese. The forward’s physical play might be a little too much to handle for some, but his presence always has opponents looking over their shoulder when he is on the ice. The Golden Knights will surely counter Wilson’s antics with a bully of their own in Ryan Reaves, who was acquired from Pittsburgh at the trade deadline for situations just like this.
Aside from the potent skill of the offense, Washington will bring a very experienced and capable defensive unit, back by former Vezina and Jennings Trophy winner, Braden Holtby. Holtby, who didn’t quite have the dominate season as fans were used to seeing, had to earn the net back for himself as backup Philipp Grubauer started the playoffs in net for the Capitals. Since going back between the pipes, Holtby has had a .924 save percentage, and has really been clutch in big games throughout the playoffs, headlined by his back-to-back shutouts in elimination games six and seven in the series against the Lightning.
A lot of people still refuse to be sold on bothteams. The Caps have shown flashes of “same ‘ol Caps” when it comes blowing games and series leads, but they’ve finally gotten over the hump. Question marks surrounding Braden Holtby’s play and the compete level of Alex Ovechkin have seemed to subside, as the Capitals are truly now playing their most consistent and highest level of hockey all year.
The Capitals have been in the discussion for being one of the best teams in the entire league for quite some time now, and this year has been no different. Despite shaky play throughout the year, the Capitals seem to have it all figured out with a healthy roster that is finding contributions from all players.
Many people felt it was a matter of time before Vegas’ luck finally runs out, and those folks are all still waiting. What this team lacks in superstar talent, they make up for in speed, hustle and a no-quit attitude. It certainly helps having one of the best playoff goaltenders of all-time in Marc-Andre Fleury on the back end, so it would be silly to think that the Knights won’t be able to compete in this series despite the lack of depth when compared to Washington. Look forward to a gritty, fast-paced series, that will be treat to watch every single game.
The Bottom Line
The Golden Knights took both games from the Capitals when they met in the regular season, so they have shown that they can rise to the challenge against the experienced squad. Ultimately, hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard. Not to say that the Capitals won’t be giving it their all this series, but there’s evidently a different type of compete level you have to bring to beat Vegas.
After the horrific events that took place in Las Vegas a few months ago, the Golden Knights are playing for much more than just a Stanley Cup. If being essentially kicked out the door by their previous teams isn’t enough motivation for these players to want to win this thing, then winning it all for the city will certainly do the trick.
The house always wins – Vegas wins it at home in seven games.
(All games on NBCSN and CBC)
Game 1: Monday, May 28, 8 p.m. ET in Las Vegas
Game 2: Wednesday, May 30, 8 p.m. ET in Las Vegas
Game 3: Saturday, June 2, 8 p.m. ET in Washington
Game 4: Monday, June 4, 8 p.m. ET in Washington
*Game 5: Thursday, June 7, 8 p.m. ET in Las Vegas
*Game 6: Sunday, June 10, 8 p.m. ET in Washington
*Game 7: Wednesday, June 13, 8 p.m. ET in Las Vegas