Between a band of unwanted underdogs and notorious chokers, someone is about to make history. The Vegas Golden Knights and Washington Capitals will each look to bring the Stanley Cup to their franchise for the very first-time.
Stanley Cup Final Preview: Vegas Golden Knights vs. Washington Capitals
On Monday, when the puck drops, you can count on these two teams to pull out all the stops for a day they weren’t sure would ever come. In order to do this matchup justice, it’s important to look at these team’s pasts (or lack thereof), how they arrived here and what they bring to the ice for the Cup Final.
Neither of these two teams would be here without George McPhee. McPhee, the current Vegas general manager, was the general manager of the Washington Capitals for 17 years, building much of the core group that still remains. The Capitals also reached the Cup Final in their first year, thanks to McPhee. Unfortunately, they fell short, losing in four games to the Detroit Red Wings. Of course, McPhee would love to see his Golden Knights overtake the Capitals in their inaugural season. However, it’s really a win for McPhee either way and clear proof of his undeniable hockey-sense.
Your Worst Knightmare
On June 21, 2017, in T-Mobile Arena, the Vegas Golden Knights were assembled. The consensus at the time? The Golden Knights would be average at best. Since the puck dropped to open their first season, the Knights have been shattering expectations, creating one Cinderella story after another. Despite injuries thrown their way, most notably using five goaltenders in their first ten games, the Knights continued to rise above. Players that had been average at best, i.e. William Karlsson, have excelled in the desert. Marc-Andre Fleury, the superstar of the expansion draft, is playing his best hockey ever. We’ll talk more about that later. The Knights are also an extremely fast team, making teams like the Los Angeles Kings look like slugs on the ice.
In the wake of the unimaginable shooting tragedy back in October, the Golden Knights helped Las Vegas rise up, making everyone proud to be #VegasBorn. As Vegas preps for the Cup Final, the city has even banned capital letters in solidarity with their Knights. It’s hard to not at least appreciate the incredible fan base that’s been built in such a short amount of time in an unorthodox hockey community.
Capitals Chemistry Finally Clicking
The Washington Capitals are notorious for choking when it comes to the post-season. They rarely make it past the second-round, despite winning President’s Trophy year-after-year. The consensus has been that the team contains a lot of incredible talent but in the post-season, those players are more focused on their individual play instead of playing as a team. That singularity has stifled them and kept them from achieving their ultimate goal. This year the Capitals have certainly come together as one.
Top players continue to pump out the offence. Evgeny Kuznetsov, in particular, has been incredible with 24 points in 19 games. Nicklas Backstrom returned in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning after missing four games with a broken finger. If you take a look at him now, his finger is clearly still ailing, yet he’s put up three points (one goal and two assists) since his return. The Capitals are also getting clutch production from players like Andre Burakovsky, who scored two goals in Game 7, his only points of these playoffs.
Much of their past failures have been blamed on Alex Ovechkin, the team captain, who is now in his 13th season with the Capitals. Ovechkin, drafted first overall by the Capitals in the 2004 NHL Draft, is the Capitals pride and joy. Because he is the face of the Capitals franchise, the blame for their pitfalls will immediately go to him. However, Ovechkin has constantly shown up in the post-season. In 116 playoff games, the Russian great has 112 points, including 58 goals and 54 assists. The difference this year is he’s able to rely on his entire team to shoulder the weight of a playoff run.
Braden Holtby and Fleury are two of the best in the business. Holtby, the 2015-16 Vezina Trophy winner has consistently put up great numbers in the post-season. This year has been much better than his last. So far he has a 2.04 goals against average and .924 save percentage. Benching the 28-year-old netminder for the first two games of this year’s playoffs may have been the boost he needed to bolster his performance up a notch. However, it’s hard to appreciate how good Holtby has been because Fleury has been putting on a master class.
If the playoffs ended today, Fleury’s .947 save percentage would be the highest mark in NHL playoff history from a goaltender playing more than 15 games. He already holds three Stanley Cups, but Fleury’s chemistry with the Golden Knights puts him closer and closer to a fourth. With a 1.68 goals against average to boot, Fleury is making the post-season look like child’s play. Additionally, in the final game of each series, Fleury allowed only one goal. It’s no wonder why he’s a favourite to win the Conn Smythe Trophy, these are his best numbers in his career’s 12 playoff runs.
Behind every winning team is a strong coach. Through all the long travel days and injuries that plague moral, a great coach motivates their team forward. Gerard Gallant and Barry Trotz fit the bill perfectly. No matter the outcome, both coaches deserve extremely high praise. Trotz has been with the Capitals organization since 2014 and has brought them extreme success during his tenure. The Capitals have won the President’s Trophy twice in that time. They’ve also secured the top seat in the Metropolitan Division three times. As his contract expires this year, expect the Capitals to keep him onboard.
On the other side of the coin, we have Gallant. Gallant is already a favourite to with the Jack Adams Award for NHL coach of the year and it’s no mystery why. He fits in perfectly with his team of misfit toys. He was fired by the Florida Panthers in November 2016 after a loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. Since being hired by McPhee to coach the Knights, his fairness and adaptability have allowed the Golden Knights to grow into a powerhouse. Gallant has motivated his team through the Vegas shooting tragedy and always demanded his players earn their time. Names are not important on their roster. The play for the name on the front of their sweater, not the one on the back. Gallant has done incredible work with the Knights and that will continue throughout the Knights bright future.
It’s no longer about just depth, skill or speed, it’s clear both teams have plenty of both. Now, each team’s success will rely on much more granular details. The Golden Knights have been writing their own fairytale all season. Ovechkin and his Capitals look ready to finally banish their bad reputation. However, with Fleury being as incredible as he has been, he could be the difference maker between two teams of incredible talent. Ultimately, I’m going with Vegas in seven games.
Main Photo: BOSTON, MA – JUNE 19: A view of the Stanley Cup Final logo on the ice prior to Game Four of the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Final between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Bruins at TD Garden on June 19, 2013, in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)