Nobody predicted this. A Stanley Cup Finals between the Vegas Golden Knights and Washington Capitals. At this point, many people thought Vegas would be excited about winning the draft lottery and selecting Rasmus Dahlin….. not being excited about playing in the Stanley Cup Final. For the Capitals, last year seemed to be ‘it’ for them. The Capitals lost Game 7 last year to Pittsburgh and top free agents like Kevin Shattenkirk, Justin Williams and Karl Alzner signed elsewhere leaving a massive void…. Not so much. For the first time in the 13-year Ovechkin era, the Capitals are in the Stanley Cup Final. Let’s see who has the edge between these 2 teams.
The Golden Knights had 13 players have career years this season. Including top scorer William Karlsson go from 6 to 43 goals, Erik Haula from 15 to 29, Jonathan Marchessault had a 24 point increase and had 75 this year, Alex Tuch didn’t have any NHL points prior to this year and he had 37. Marchessault has been the Knights top scorer in the playoffs and is a top 5 Conn Smythe candidate at this point. Not bad for a team of players who had their old teams say they weren’t needed anymore.
The Golden Knights best player wouldn’t even be in the Capitals top 3. Alex Ovechkin looks as good as he ever has and after 87 points in the regular season, he’s followed it up with 22 throughout the first 3 rounds. Evgeny Kuznetsov was awful in last year’s playoffs but he has been terrific this year and leads the playoffs in scoring with 24 points. Nick Backstrom clearly has something broken in his hand but is still a top passer in the league and has 16 points in 15 playoff games. Lars Eller and TJ Oshie don’t get talked about that often, but both have 14 and 15 points. The Capitals are also getting big time performances from guys like Tom Wilson, Chandler Stephenson and Andre Burakovsky
Would you rather a top-heavy defense or one that is deep without any top talent? Like the forwards, the Capitals boast 3 top defensemen. John Carlson, Dmitri Orlov, and Matt Niskanen, those top 3 are amongst the best top 3 in the league. The emergence of Orlov has especially caught the attention of my eye. The Capitals bottom 3 is a different story, Michal Kempny was acquired for a 3rd round pick, Brooks Orpik is somehow a +15 but is also 37, and Christian Djoos is only averaging 11 minutes a game. An Injury to the Washington Defense could be crucial.
The Golden Knights top defensemen (Nate Schmidt) was taken from Washington in the expansion draft. The Schmidt and Brayden McNabb pairing has been terrific for Vegas as both are averaging over 22 minutes a game. Hometown boy Deryk Engelland doesn’t have a point but adds lots of toughness on the backend. Shea Theodore was taken from Anaheim in the draft and is starting to get the chance that many thought he deserved 2 years ago. The Vegas defense is rounded out by powerplay specialist Colin Miller and either Jon Merrill or Luca Sbisa.
Advantage: Washington (if no injuries happen)
As big of a fluke people might think Vegas is. Give any team a goalie with a .947 save percentage and tell me how they do… probably pretty good. Marc-Andre Fleury is the clear favourite for the Conn Smythe and has been terrific all year and especially in the playoffs. He has the capability to win a cup all by himself.
Braden Holtby didn’t even start the first 2 games, but he has played extremely well and boasts a .923 save percentage. After not getting a shutout all year, he posted back-to-back goose eggs in Games 6 and 7 against Tampa Bay.
Washington in 6. The Capitals big boys have been tremendous in the playoffs and I expect that to continue. The goaltending will mean lots of entertaining 2-1 hockey games.
Photo: GREGORY SHAMUS/ GETTY IMAGES