By Evan Oscherwitz
Last year, the hockey world was treated to a classic David vs. Goliath matchup in the Stanley Cup Final. The defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins, led by superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, faced off against the Nashville Predators. Nashville, anchored by a stout defense, featuring stalwarts P.K. Subban and Roman Josi, was the lowest seed in the playoff bracket and had never reached the final in their 18-year history.
Unfortunately for the Predators, the Penguins were simply too much to handle. Pittsburgh won in six games.
This year, the dynamic looks to be very different. Two Davids face off against one another in a true clash of the Titans. The infant Vegas Golden Knights look to cap off their historic inaugural season by hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup, while the Washington Capitals look to atone for previous playoff failures by bringing a championship to America’s capital for the first time in almost three decades. No matter the result, this year’s final looks to be one of the most polarizing and entertaining matchups in recent memory. For hockey fans across North America, May 28th cannot come soon enough.
How they got here
Vegas Golden Knights
On some level, every hockey fan is familiar with the story of the Vegas Golden Knights. In the wake of the horrific Mandalay Bay massacre that claimed 57 lives this past October in Las Vegas, the team rallied around its community and took the Pacific Division by storm. The Knights finished with a 51-24-7 record, winning the division by a significant margin and finishing third in the Western Conference.
At the start of the playoffs, many analysts and fans alike expected Vegas to be overwhelmed by a seasoned Los Angeles Kings team that had won the Stanley Cup twice in the last five years. Vegas responded to their doubters by sweeping the Kings and limiting them to three goals in the entire series.
In the second round, the Knights continued their dominance by eliminating the San José Sharks in six games. This included a demonstrative 7-0 steamrolling in game 1.
In the Conference Finals, Vegas again silenced their doubters yet again by ousting the heavily favored Winnipeg Jets in five games, closing out the series on the road.
Throughout the playoffs, goaltender Marc-André Fleury has been the best player on any team, consistently making superhuman saves to steal games for his team. He is already the clear favorite to win the Conn Smythe Trophy, and if the Knights manage to win the Stanley Cup this year, it would mark the third consecutive victory for the netminder from Sorel-Tracy, Québec. With a resume like that, Fleury is easily a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Though Fleury has been spectacular, his teammates have also played very well in front of him. The first line of Reilly Smith, William Karlsson, and Jonathan Marchessault have been a point-producing machine throughout the playoffs, scoring 16 of the Golden Knights’ 43 playoff goals. Marchessault’s 18 playoff points lead the team, while Smith’s 16, and Karlsson’s 13 are good for second and third, respectively.
All four lines are producing for Vegas, with Erik Haula, Alex Tuch, and James Neal also making key contributions. On the blue line, Nate Schmidt and Colin Miller have been a stout first pairing, each of them proving that they are bonafide, two-way defencemen, who can quarterback power plays and kill off penalties with the very best.
Vegas also boasted one of the best penalty kills in the NHL this season. This is in large part thanks to their efforts. In addition to Schmidt and Miller, Brayden McNabb, Shea Theodore, and Deryk Engelland have all played vital roles in helping Vegas reach the final. McNabb and Theodore both scored key goals against the Kings in the first round, and have continued to stifle opposing teams with their stout defense.
Meanwhile, Engelland has been one of the Knights’ leaders in ice time, averaging over 22 minutes a game. His work ethic and presence in the dressing room have been undeniable catalysts for Vegas’ finals run, and many pundits are already calling for Engelland to be named captain next season. The well-oiled Vegas machine has yet to be tested in these playoffs, and coming off a week-long rest period, the Knights will surely be a formidable opponent in the Cup Final.
In many ways, the story of this year’s Capitals begins in last year’s playoffs. Washington had gone all-in at the trade deadline, acquiring All-Star defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk to maximize their chance at winning their first Stanley Cup. Ultimately, the Capitals were defeated by the eventual champion Penguins in a heartbreaking game 7.
Following that loss, Washington lost several key players in free agency. It appeared as though their chance to win the Cup were all but gone. However, propelled by a new attitude in the dressing room, the 2017-2018 Capitals cruised to their third consecutive Metropolitan Division title and waltzed into a date with the much-maligned Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the playoffs.
With Philipp Grubauer in front of the net, Washington lost the first two games at home, prompting a goalie change that handed the reins back to 2016 Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby. Washington won four straight games to knock Columbus out of the playoffs and unsurprisingly drew their hated division rivals from Pittsburgh in the next round. Against all odds, the Capitals triumphed over the two-time defending champions in six games, advancing to the Conference Finals for the first time in 20 years.
There, they met a Tampa Bay Lightning team loaded with high-end talent and hungry for a chance at the Cup after missing the playoffs in 2016-2017. Washington won the first two games, but Tampa came roaring back to win three straight to take the lead in the series. However, propelled by Holtby’s stellar play, the Capitals prevented Tampa from scoring a goal in the final two games and won the series in seven games.
Captain, Alexander Ovechkin, was phenomenal throughout the first three rounds, logging 10 goals and 11 assists, despite the loss of his preferred center in Nicklas Bäckström. Fellow Russian, Evgeny Kuznetsov, filled the void nicely, leading the team with 23 points in 19 playoff games- including the series-winning goal against Pittsburgh. After returning from injury, Bäckström was also very effective, scoring the winning goal in game 7 against Tampa, and setting Ovechkin for a spectacular one-timer goal just two minutes into the contest.
Elsewhere on the attack, TJ Oshie and Tom Wilson have proven themselves to be excellent top-six wingers, while Andre Burakowsky, Chandler Stephenson, and Devante Smith-Pelly have provided Washington with cost-efficient young depth and a physical presence that helped the Capitals out-muscle their opponents in the first three rounds.
On the blue line, John Carlson has established himself as a premier offensive defenseman, leading all NHL defensemen in scoring during the regular season, and adding to his point-producing acumen in the playoffs. Dmitry Orlov has been a solid playmaker alongside Carlson, and 37-year-old Brooks Orpik provides the experience needed to get Washington over the hump.
Behind them, Braden Holtby has been an absolute rock in net since snatching his job back from Philipp Grubauer. Holtby shut down a potent Tampa Bay Lightning attack in the last two games to get Washington to the final, and he looks more than ready to perform on the biggest stage of his career so far. With all these pieces, one thing is certain: if the Capitals win the Stanley Cup, it will be a team effort.
As previously mentioned, the Golden Knights have scoring depth rivaled by few teams in the NHL. All four lines are capable of producing points, and Vegas touts an excellent balance of speed and physicality. However, they simply cannot match the high-end talent of the Washington Capitals who feature superstar Alexander Ovechkin, flashy phenom Evgeny Kuznetsov, a revitalized TJ Oshie, and the always dangerous playmaker Nicklas Bäckström.
Want some physicality? The Caps have you covered. Power forwards are rare in today’s NHL, but Washington has three prime examples in Tom Wilson, Jay Beagle, and Devante Smith-Pelly. These three tough Canadians can dish out devastating hits, screen the goalie, and even drop the gloves if necessary, as Wilson did in game 7 against Tampa. So far, no team has been able to solve Washington’s attack, and Vegas will need to break from that trend if they hope to win.
Though the Capitals have a few very good defensemen on their roster, like Dmitry Orlov and John Carlson, depth on the blue line has been an issue all year for Washington. Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik both struggled against Tampa, while Christian Djoos has looked very young and inexperienced. Jakub Jerabek has only been used sparingly since he was acquired from Montreal, and Michal Kempny has struggled to find ice time as well.
Vegas has experienced no such struggles on the blue line, with former Washington Capital Nate Schmidt, and 40-point scorer Colin Miller leading the way for the Knights’ defense. Behind the top pairing, Vegas features several skilled d-men (mostly expansion draft pickups) who serve as the ultimate testament to the job George McPhee has done in building this roster.
Deryk Engelland, Brayden McNabb, Shea Theodore, and Luca Sbisa have all played significant minutes for the Golden Knights these playoffs, with Brad Hunt also playing intermittently as a seventh defenceman.
Vegas has dominated puck possession throughout the playoffs, in large part thanks to their d-core stifling opposing attacks and avoiding careless turnovers. Should the Knights’ defense keep up their impressive showing, Vegas has an excellent chance of winning the Stanley Cup.
Braden Holtby has been rock solid in net for Washington, and is a major reason why the Capitals are in the final to begin with, having taken over for a struggling Philipp Grubauer after game two against Columbus. Holtby never looked back, posting a 2.04 goals-against average since getting his job back, and shutting out the Tampa Bay Lightning in the last eight periods of that series. Against any other team, Holtby would have a sizeable advantage.
Unfortunately for Holtby, the man he is facing off against has been nothing shy of unstoppable this postseason, posting an inconceivable .947 save percentage and 1.68 goals against average. These playoffs have truly been the Marc-André Fleury show, and the three-time Stanley Cup Champion is showing no signs of slowing down.
Already being heralded as a shoe-in for the Conn Smythe Trophy, Fleury is seeking his third consecutive Cup victory- a feat which would certainly land him in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Despite the pressure, Fleury looks as radiant as ever and appears to be savoring every moment of this magical run for the Golden Knights. When Fleury is confident and on his game, he is virtually unbeatable, and Washington has their work cut out for them.
If learned hockey fans have gleaned one thing in the last eight months, it’s that betting against Vegas usually turns out poorly. The Knights have forced their way through three excellent teams that they were given no chance to beat to get her. Now, only four wins stand in the way of winning an undreamable Stanley Cup as a first-year expansion team. GM George McPhee and head coach Gerard Gallant have built a juggernaut and made 30 other general managers look foolish in the process. The team plays with a tremendous fire, and have managed to win games no matter what. Washington has a tremendous team, but it is simply Vegas’ time.
Vegas wins series 4-2