After a grueling 82-game regular season and thrilling three rounds of playoffs, we’re down to the final two. Tonight, the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights square off in the first game of the 2018 Stanley Cup Finals.
Both teams were not expected to be in this position, but yet, here they stand, each just four wins away from hockey’s most coveted prize. This series has two excellent storylines. One team — the Vegas Golden Knights — trying to conclude the greatest story in sports in the past 50 years. The other — the Washington Capitals — trying to win their first championship in franchise history and have their franchise player Alex Ovechkin, finally cement his legacy as one of the best to ever step on the ice.
Every Stanley Cup Finals has its fair share of memorable moments, but starting this evening, hockey fans could be in for something really special, drama included. Here’s our preview of the Cup Final.
Tale of the Tape
Washington Capitals: Founded 1974, Two Conference Championships (1997-98, 2017-18), Three Presidents’ Trophies (2009-10, 2015-16, 2016-17), 11 Division Championships (1988–89, 1999–00, 2000–01, 2007–08, 2008–09, 2009–10, 2010–11, 2012–13, 2015–16, 2016–17, 2017–18)
Vegas Golden Knights: Founded 2016, One Conference Championship (2017-18), One Division Championship (2017-18)
How They Got There
Washington Capitals (12-7 in the postseason):
Won the Metropolitan Division with 105 points. Came back from 2-0 to defeat the Columbus Blue Jackets in six games. Dethrowned the back-to-back Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins in six. Outlasted the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games (consecutive shutouts in games six and seven).
Vegas Golden Knights (12-3 in the postseason):
Won the Pacific Division with 109 points. Swept the Los Angeles Kings 4-0 in the West Quarterfinals. Overpowered the San Jose Sharks in six games in the Semis. Blitzed by the Winnipeg Jets in five games (four straight wins after losing game one).
This Cup Final might feature two of the most explosive attacks we’ve seen in quite some time.
Both these teams are surrounded by speed, scoring, and a ton of skill. Vegas sports a well-balanced group that is extremely tenacious, while the Capitals are deadly and can roll four lines.
William “Wild Bill” Karlsson leads the Vegas charge with Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith. Karlsson went from six goals to 43 after being drafted from Columbus and has kept his goal-scoring prowess, tallying six through the first three rounds. Marchessault and Smith, two defectors from the Panthers, had outstanding regular seasons, and have continued to spark their team throughout the team’s run.
Vegas is loaded on their second and third lines with unsung players who pound the opposition. Erik Haula, James Neal, Tomas Nosek, Cody Eakin, and Ryan Carpenter have all shined in the postseason. Alex Tuch has shot into the spotlight with his overwhelming size and shot. Tomas Tatar brings his wealth of experience from his Red Wings days, along with some good hands.
The Golden Knights at the bottom of the forward corps have a lot of jam and a lunch-pail mentality with Ryan Reaves and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare.
For Barry Trotz, the offense starts and finishes with the superstar and future Hall of Famer Alex Ovechkin.
Ovechkin has had a phenomenal regular season with 49 goals and 38 assists for 87 points. It was a fantastic rebound from his campaign the year prior where he only recorded 69 points. Ovi became a 600 goal scorer during the regular season. But now on the verge of his first Cup, he has solidified his greatness in the postseason with 22 points in 19 games.
After Ovechkin, the Caps are equipped with the brilliance of Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom. Kuznetsov has been the best player in the postseason with 24 points. Backstrom has quietly excelled in the tournament along with T.J. Oshie, Lars Eller, Tom Wilson, and Jay Beagle. Washington has received excellent contributions from unknowns Andre Burakovsky, Chandler Stephenson, and Devante Smith-Pelly,
Rounding out the Capitals attack, rookie Jakub Vrana, Alex Chaisson, and Brett Connolly are a solid threesome.
It might be hard to expect a whole lot of defense to be played in this series, but both teams are outfitted with a solid amount of blueliners.
Washington’s backend is headlined by John Carlson. Carlson, had a spectacular regular season notching 51 points in 95 games. One of the best two-way defensemen in the game, his partner Dmitry Orlov is no slouch himself. Once Karl Alzner left for Montreal last summer, Orlov became the number-two man on the Caps blueline. He’s been successful in his new role.
Behind Carlson and Orlov, is grizzled veteran Brooks Orpik. Orpik is in the midst of playing the best hockey of his career. He’s been the most reliable d-men for Washington in the playoffs. Matt Niskanen, whose playoff experience has been on display this spring hasn’t gone unnoticed. Rookies Michal Kempny and Christain Djoos have been very sharp as the last line of defense (pardon the pun).
The opposing defense for the Golden Knights is filled with studs and no-names. But those studs and no-names, make up the fastest and hardest working d-corps in the game.
Former Capital, Nate Schmidt, has been a rock on for Vegas all season-long, and his play in the playoffs has him primed for a very bright future. He’s proven to be dependable at both ends of the ice. His counterpart, Brayden McNabb, has found a home garnering top-flight minutes and using his 6’4 frame to his advantage.
Another star in the making, Shea Theodore, who was stolen from the Ducks, has played wonderfully for Vegas in their 15 postseason games. He’s led the Golden Knights in the playoffs for points by a defenseman, once again showing he’s on the cusp of big things. Captain Deryk Engelland, a Las Vegas native, has revived his career and has turned in to a fantastic leader for the Knights.
The final parts of the Golden Knights backend, Colin Miller, and Luca Sbisa have been effective when called to action. Miller more than Sbisa with his wicked shot and defensive capabilities.
Many will say that this goaltending matchup was meant to be, for the simple fact that Marc Andre-Fleury and Braden Holtby are very familiar with each other from the times they met when Fleury donned the Penguins crest.
But now a new chapter will be written, with both puck-stoppers at the top of their game.
Marc Andre-Fleury has been the face of the Golden Knights since he was drafted last summer. And even after getting hurt early in the season, Fleury rebounded and became an intricate part of the unbelievable story taking place in Sin City. And after a remarkable regular season, Fleury has turned back the clock in the playoffs, literally being lights out except for one or two bumps in the road. The 33-year old is 12-3 in the postseason so far and is playing in his third consecutive Cup Final.
If Fleury backstops Vegas to the title, it will be his fourth Stanley Cup win, putting him in a select group of goaltenders in NHL history to win four Cups.
On the other end, Braden Holtby has taken a long road, finally getting the Capitals to the Final.
For years, Holtby was known as a choker in the playoffs, never making the big stop and failing to come up in the clutch. But something changed for Holtby after his not so stellar second half of the regular season and benching in the first two games of the playoffs for Philipp Grubauer, the switch turned on. Holtby has since shown he’s a playoff caliber goalie, winning four straight games over the Blue Jackets, exercising his demons against the Pens, and posting two straight goose-eggs in his team’s comeback from 3-2 against Tampa in games six and seven.
Advantage: Golden Knights
Special Teams, Intangibles, Coaching, X-Factors, Prediction
The special teams battle in this series could be the deciding factor.
Washington’s power play has always been lethal with Ovechkin and Backstrom at the helm. That hasn’t changed in this year’s postseason. Their penalty kill struggled on their path to the Cup, but not allowing the Lightning’s vaunted power play to capitalize in games six and seven, could be a huge spark against a struggling Vegas man-advantage.
Speaking of the Golden Knights, their power play and penalty kill in the regular season were both just outside the top ten in the league. But in the playoffs, their power play hasn’t found the right chord. That can possibly change in the final round. Down a man, the Knights have been dominant, with Karlsson and Smith able to strike as quickly as anyone in the playoffs.
And in terms of intangibles, these two clubs have a significant quality.
For Vegas, they really have nothing to lose. They’ve already written not only one of hockey’s but sports most unlikely tales. No one in their right mind would have expected them to be in the position they so rightfully claim after not having a roster at this time a year ago.
Meanwhile, for the Capitals, there’s that aura around them that this is finally their time. They’ve gone through years of heartbreak, Ovechkin has finally paid his dues, they finally got through the hated Penguins. I don’t know, something says the Cup could finally be heading to the Nation’s Capital for the first time ever.
The coaching battle has a unique twist that will be great to watch.
Gerard Gallant, thrown out on the street from his prior gig, has done an extraordinary job with some deemed a throwaway roster. He’s going to win the Jack Adams Award for sure. Winning a Stanley Cup would just make that accomplishment a whole lot sweeter.
Barry Trotz was brought in to get the Capitals to this point. Successful in his long stint in Nashville, but now on the precipice of coaching a Cup winner, Trotz’s job behind the bench this year has been astounding. With a future yet to be determined, finally winning that elusive Stanley Cup would be the ultimate ending to his coaching career.
Every series has its X-factor. If I’m looking for one for each team in this series, it’s Chandler Stephenson for Washington and Ryan Carpenter for Vegas.
I don’t like to make predictions, but the magic carpet ride ends for the Golden Knights and Ovi finally lifts the Cup. Caps in 7.