By Shawn P. Roarke – NHL.com
Vegas Golden Knights vs. Washington Capitals
Golden Knights: 12-3 (defeated Los Angeles Kings 4-0 in first round, San Jose Sharks 4-2 in second round, Winnipeg Jets 4-1 in third round)
Capitals: 12-7 (defeated Columbus Blue Jackets 4-2 in first round, Pittsburgh Penguins 4-2 in second round, Tampa Bay Lightning 4-3 in third round)
Season series: VGK 2-0-0; WSH 0-2-0
There will be a new team name on the Stanley Cup when the 2018 Stanley Cup Final is finished.
Will it be the Washington Capitals, who have waited 43 long seasons and were swept, by the Detroit Red Wings, in their only other Final appearance, in 1998?
They have earned the right, winning each series after trailing, including losing the first two games to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round and three straight games to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final.
“We worked so hard for this to be able to be in the Final and all it took was 11 years, but now we’re there,” said center Nicklas Backstrom, who joined the Capitals for the 2007-08 season. “So, it’s a great feeling, especially the way we did it, the way we played the game. It was outstanding from everybody.”
Or will it be the upstart Vegas Golden Knights finishing an expansion season like no other by winning the championship in their first season?
Vegas has been dominant, sweeping the Los Angeles Kings, eliminating the San Jose Sharks in six games and defeating the Winnipeg Jets in five.
“[Washington has] bought in,” Vegas forward James Neal said. “They’re playing as a team. They’re willing to do anything to win. They’re physical. They can score goals. They have skill. We played a very similar team in Winnipeg. That being said, we’re going to have to be hard on their top guys.”
The subplots are as juicy as the main story line.
Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is having a career postseason and, when with the Pittsburgh Penguins, made life miserable for the Capitals before being selected by the Golden Knights in the NHL Expansion Draft. Fleury helped the Penguins eliminate the Capitals the past two seasons and three times since 2009.
Fleury is trying to win the Stanley Cup for a third straight season and fourth time in his career.
George McPhee, the general manager of the Golden Knights, was Capitals GM from 1997 to 2014. He drafted many of Washington’s top players, including forwards Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Backstrom; defenseman John Carlson; and goaltender Braden Holtby.
So, though there is familiarity between these two teams, the 2018 Stanley Cup Final will be like no other.
“The last 10 years have been dominated by a couple of teams [in the Final], but you’ve seen what [the Golden Knights] were able to do in the regular season and these playoffs,” Capitals forward T.J. Oshie said. “They’re going to be a tough test. I think we’re going to be a tough test as well. I personally can’t wait to get there and play head to head.”
When it is finished, one team will have completed its trek to a first championship in the most dramatic of ways.
Capitals: Ovechkin, Washington’s first-line left wing, is having a postseason to remember, impacting games with his skill and physicality. He has been a big part of each signature win. In the first round, he scored two goals in the clinching Game 6 against the Blue Jackets. In the second round, against the Penguins, he had an assist on the series-clinching goal in overtime of Game 6. In Game 7 against the Lightning, the Washington captain scored 1:02 into the game, starting what became a 4-0 win. Ovechkin has NHL career playoff highs of 12 goals and 22 points.
Golden Knights: Jonathan Marchessault, a first-line forward, has 18 points (eight goals, 10 assists) in 15 postseason games, with at least one point in 10 games. After a lackluster first round (two assists), Marchessault has been a difference-maker almost every game. He had three points in the series opener against the Sharks and three more in a Game 3 win. Against the Jets in the Western Conference Final, Marchessault had two assists in a Game 1 loss before scoring twice in Game 2, including the game-winner, and twice more in Game 3.
Capitals: Forward Tom Wilson took over the Eastern Conference Final at times. He can score, he can hit, he can turn the tide with his enthusiasm and energy. He showed that repeatedly against the Lightning, and Game 7 was a microcosm. His hit on forward Chris Kunitz on Wilson’s first shift of the game caused a turnover that keyed Washington’s counter attack, which ended with Ovechkin’s goal. Wilson finished the game with three hits and the series with 29.
Golden Knights: Forward David Perron has not scored this postseason but does have the ability to change a game with his skill. Perron, who missed two games against the Kings because of injury and two games against the Jets because of illness, has seven assists in 11 games after getting 66 points (16 goals, 50 assists) in 70 games during the regular season.
Capitals: Nothing got past Holtby with the Eastern Conference on the line. He had back-to-back shutouts in the final two games against the Lightning, who were the highest-scoring team in the regular season at 3.54 goals per game. He has not allowed a goal in 159:27, having made 60 straight saves. Holtby is 12-6 with a 2.04 goals-against average and .924 save percentage.
Golden Knights: Fleury has been the best goalie in the playoffs by a wide margin and is a front-runner for the Conn Smythe Trophy give to the postseason MVP. He has a .947 save percentage with a 1.68 GAA in 15 games. His even-strength save percentage is .956, the best in history among goalies with at least 15 games in a single postseason.
Numbers to know
Capitals: A 10.5 percent shooting percentage is the best among the four teams that made it to the conference finals, 1.4 percent better than the Golden Knights. Washington is averaging 31.7 hits per game and its 603 hits are the most by any team in the playoffs, eight more than Vegas having played four more games.
Golden Knights: Vegas has killed 82.5 percent of the power plays it has faced, the best success rate among the final four teams. Its top line — Marchessault, Karlsson and Smith — has 47 points in 15 games.
They said it
“I think our group here really understands what it means to be a team and how to win. Maybe in the past we’ve had more skill or been better on paper or whatever. But this team, everyone knows their role and everyone wants to pitch in and everyone is comfortable with each other. I haven’t been on a team like this where, in any situation, we’re confident and confident in each other, don’t get down on each other. It’s a strong group, and that’s extremely hard to come by and something that we’re going need to have going forward to be our best and be a strong team.” — Capitals goalie Braden Holtby on the difference between this team and those in the past
“It’s a big credit to the people who created this entire organization a year before we even got picked up. They did all the work to make us feel like, as soon as we put a step in Vegas, we felt like home. We felt welcome. They were clear about how we have to play if we want to be successful. I feel like every guy has understood that and played a role in that. When you have 20 guys or more that understand their role and play only for the team, it’s a successful team even if we don’t have the biggest superstar in the League, besides our goalie.” — Golden Knights forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare
Will win if …
Capitals: Win the special-teams battle and physically dominate the Golden Knights the way they did the Lightning late in the Eastern Conference Final. The Golden Knights are the best penalty-killing team they have faced and are not shy about using the body to dictate the way the game is played.
Golden Knights: Find some depth scoring and show some discipline. The top two scoring lines for Vegas have 25 goals, the rest of the forwards have 10. A second-tier forward is going to have to get hot. As for discipline, the Golden Knights know how dangerous Ovechkin and Carlson are on the power play.
How they look
Capitals projected lineup
Alex Ovechkin — Evgeny Kuznetsov — Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana — Nicklas Backstrom — T.J. Oshie
Andre Burakovsky — Lars Eller — Brett Connolly
Chandler Stephenson — Jay Beagle — Devante Smith-Pelly
Dmitry Orlov — Matt Niskanen
Michal Kempny — John Carlson
Brooks Orpik — Christian Djoos
Scratched: Madison Bowey, Travis Boyd, Alex Chiasson, Pheonix Copley, Shane Gersich, Jakub Jerabek, Nathan Walker
Golden Knights projected lineup
Jonathan Marchessault — William Karlsson — Reilly Smith
James Neal — Erik Haula — David Perron
Ryan Carpenter — Cody Eakin — Alex Tuch
Tomas Nosek — Pierre-Edouard Bellemare — Ryan Reaves
Brayden McNabb — Nate Schmidt
Shea Theodore — Deryk Engelland
Luca Sbisa — Colin Miller
Scratched: Brad Hunt, Oscar Lindberg, Jon Merrill, Tomas Tatar
Injured: William Carrier (undisclosed), Malcolm Subban (undisclosed)