On Monday night, two teams that have never won a Stanley Cup will embark on what could be a 16-day trek on the final leg of their respective journeys to a championship. Only one will reach that destination. For the long-suffering Washington Capitals and barely-out-of-the-box Vegas Golden Knights, it is an unexpected turn, neither team on many short lists of championship contenders as the season began in October.
But neither can be said to be a fluke entry in this Stanley Cup final. The Capitals fought through an upstart foe in the Columbus Blue Jackets, vanquished their perennial nemesis in the Pittsburgh Penguins, and then disposed of the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference in the Tampa Bay Lightning. Meanwhile, the Golden Knights swept through the first three rounds losing only three games along the way.
Washington Capitals (49-26-7)
Vegas Golden Knights (51-24-7)
Then and Now
There is not a lot of history for the Caps this deep into the postseason. But one thing does stand out. Through three rounds, the 1998 Capitals – the only other Caps team to reach the finals – were a team much more dependent on top-notch goaltending than this year’s. Not that Braden Holtby has been bad in goal for this club. His 12-6, 2.04, .923, two shutout line compares favorably with almost any other goalie in the postseason. He ranks second among 11 goalies appearing in at least five games in goals against average, third in save percentage, second in even strength save percentage, and he is tied for second in shutouts. But back in 1998, Olaf Kolzig dragged the team to the finals on his back, taking the league’s best goals against average (1.69), best save percentage (.946), and biggest shutout total (four) into the final round.
This Capitals club is a much more productive club offensively than that 1998 version. Both Alex Ovechkin (12) and Evgeny Kuznetsov (11) have more goals than the leader of that 1998 squad through three rounds (Sergei Gonchar with seven), and five Capitals have more points at this stage than the Caps’ leader through three rounds in 1998 (Adam Oates with 14). This club even spreads the clutch goals around more liberally. Eight players on this year’s squad have game-winning goals, four of them with two apiece. In 1998 there were seven players with game-winners through three rounds, but Joe Juneau had four of the 12 deciding goals.
On special teams, the difference, at least with respect to the power play, largely reflects the differences in era. This year’s team ranks second in power play efficiency, not much different from the third-ranked team through three rounds in 1998. But where the 1998 third-ranked team had a 17.9 percent rate with the man advantage, this year’s team is clicking at a 28.9 percent rate. Where this year’s club comes up short compared to the 1998 club is in penalty killing, the 1998 squad ranked fourth through three rounds (87.9 percent), while this year’s club is ranked tenth (75.4 percent).
For Vegas, there is no “then,” only “now.” But there is a brief history between these clubs. The bad news is that the Caps lost both games played against the Golden Knights this season. In the first one, they were almost run out of T-Mobile Arena in the first 15 minutes of their matchup two days before Christmas in Las Vegas, allowing three goals while failing to convert on either of the power play chances they had in the first five minutes of the game. Vegas prevailed, 3-0. The Caps lost the home rematch in early February, taking a one-goal lead three times in the contest before Vegas tied the game for the third time mid-way through the third period, and then winning it on a late goal from Alex Tuch, who also had the game-winner in the December Vegas win. Here is a summary of the season series:
And here is the scoring detail for the two clubs in the season series:
How Caps of you to notice…
The first win the Caps post in this series will be their first Stanley Cup final win in team history. They were swept by the Detroit Red Wings in four games in the 1998 final, their only other appearance.
How Caps of you to notice II…
Esa Tikkanen appeared in 165 postseason games and was a member of five Stanley Cup champions before he arrived in Washington late in the 1997-1998 season. He scored 69 goals for four different teams in the postseason before he pulled on the teal and bronze Capitals sweater in the playoffs. He even scored three goals for the Caps in his lone postseason with the club. But he will be forever remembered for the shot that didn’t go in. With the Caps nursing a 4-3 lead mid-way through third period of Game 2 in Detroit and looking to tie the series at a game apiece, Tikkanen had the puck and perhaps the game on his stick when he broke in alone on goalie Chris Osgood. When Tikkanen deked Osgood to the ice and pulled the puck around the sprawled goalie, he had an entirely open net at which to shoot. He slid the puck behind Osgood and…wide to the far side. Instead of taking a two-goal lead in the Red Wing’s building, the Caps were left deflated and surrendered the tying goal off a turnover late in the third period, losing the contest in overtime on a Kris Draper goal. The Caps went on to lose the series in a four-game sweep. Whether coincidence or not, Tikkanen is the last native of Finland to appear in a postseason game for the Caps.
The Caps have never played a postseason game outside the Eastern time zone, Detroit being as far west as they ever played a playoff game.
Never ever II…
The Caps have never scored first in a Stanley Cup final game. In each of the four games against the Red Wings in 1998, the Wings scored the game’s first goal.
Never ever III…
The Caps have never scored a first period goal in a Stanley Cup final game.
It just doesn’t matter…
None of that 1998 crap matters. None of it.
Singing for the Unsung
In the three rounds played so far we had Tom Wilson, Chandler Stephenson, and Brooks Orpik. This time around we are going with the idea of a player who can “fight fire with fire,” or more accurately, “fight speed with speed.” That brings us to Jakub Vrana. At this point it is all about the games played when it comes to statistical leaders, but still, Vrana is sixth among rookies in points in the postseason (six). He has shown an absence of bashfulness in shooting the puck, his 29 shots on goal tied for second among rookies in the playoffs, and his shot attempts-for on ice at 5-on-5 is sixth among rookies. Half of his six points came in the Caps’ 6-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 5 of their conference semi-final series, but that performance might be an indicator of what Vrana is capable of when he is on his game. What he has not yet done is express his considerable offensive talent in road games in the postseason. Over two seasons he is 0-1-1, plus-2, in ten road playoff games. If he can find a way to put Vegas on their heels using his speed and offensive tool set, it might be just the thing to give the Caps some relief from the “play fast” Golden Knights at the other end.
And who might that be for Vegas?
Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson generally do the heavy lifting when it comes to goal scoring for the Golden Knights. But in their midst is a rookie who has more than held his own as a contributor. Alex Tuch gets comparatively less attention, but there he is with six playoff goals, tied with Karlsson for second on the team behind Marchessault (eight). Tuch is the quintessential Vegas rookie. Drafted 18th overall by the Minnesota Wild in 2014, he spent two years with Boston College in the NCAA before turning pro. He was called up to the parent club in 2016-2017 for six games (no points, minus-3), but in June 2017, he was traded to the Golden Knights for a conditional third round draft pick. It was not as simple as that, though. Tuch was “conditional” in another sense. Minnesota wanted the Golden Knights to stay clear of taking any of their defensemen in the expansion draft, so Vegas ended up taking forward Erik Haula on the condition of the Wild offering up Tuch for what would be a third-round pick. It worked out for Vegas. Tuch finished tied for 14th in goals and points among rookies in the regular season. He had four game-winning goals for the Golden Knights, two of them coming in the two wins over Washington.
And now, for something a little different...
With two teams left of the 31 that started the season in October and of the 16 that started this postseason, this is now a matchup duel. So, how do the teams matchup?
Forwards: There are narratives attached to the forwards of these teams that do not quite fit. For Vegas, there is the idea of plucky castoffs scooped up by the genius general manager who have somehow, against all odds, cobbled together a fine body of work. Well, let’s back up. Castoffs? In nine seasons before this one, James Neal had never recorded fewer than 21 goals, and that came in the abbreviated 2012-2013 season in which he played in just 40 games. He had 25 goals in 71 games this season. Jonathan Marchessault recorded 30 goals for Florida last season in what was his first full season in the NHL. He had 27 goals this season. Reilly Smith averaged 18 goals over four seasons before going to Vegas. He had 22 this season. Okay, William Karlsson was something of a surprise, a second-round draft pick of Anaheim who managed only 18 goals in 183 games with the Ducks and the Columbus Blue Jackets. He exploded for 43 goals this season and was a league-high plus-49. These guys might not be well known, but it is not as if they didn’t have a decent body of work before landing in the desert.
The Caps are looked at as a “skill” group of individual flair and creativity that puts up big offensive numbers in the regular season, but not so much when the flowers bloom in the spring. Evgeny Kuznetsov might have one of the most complete offensive skill sets in the league, but in three postseasons before this one he was just 11-8-19 in 39 playoff games. Nicklas Backstrom is on a very short list of best playmakers in the game, a list that might include Backstrom, Sidney Crosby, and … well, that might be it (ok, Joe Thornton, too). But in six postseasons preceding this one, he was just 14-31-45 in 68 games. Alex Ovechkin has a hall of fame plaque waiting for him, but he was also the answer to an odd trivia question – How many players in NHL history scored 600 or more regular season goals with one team without winning a Stanley Cup? There is Ovechkin and… T.J. Oshie had a reputation in St. Louis as being a player whose production shriveled in the spring (5-4-9 in 30 playoff games). Andre Burakovsky had yet to fulfill his considerable promise in the postseason (6-4-10 in 36 games before this season). But this postseason, Kuznetsov leads the league in points (24) and currently has a franchise-record ten-game playoff points streak, Ovechkin is second in goals (12), Backstrom is averaging more than a point per playoff game for the first time since he had nine points in seven games in 2010 despite a hand injury, Oshie has a career high of seven goals in a single postseason (eclipsing his five postseason, 30 game total in St. Louis), and Burakovsky came up huge in perhaps the franchise’s most important game ever with two goals in the series clinching 4-0 win over Tampa Bay that sent the Caps to this final series.
But forwards for both teams have bought into playing a disciplined sort of style that puts pressure on their opponents. Vegas does it with a swarming forecheck to create turnovers, while the Caps do it with a more deliberate approach to suppress shots, but how both put pressure on opponents in their own zone is a key ingredient of their success. Which group has an advantage might turn on how much more Backstrom can recover with his hand injury before the series starts on Monday night.
Defense: Both teams have rather solid top-four performers on the back end and issues with their third pairs. Vegas has offensive balance among Shea Theodore (2-5-7, plus-5), Nate Schmidt (2-4-6, plus-7), Brayden McNabb (2-3-5, plus-4), and Colin Miller (2-1-3, plus-7). Luca Sbisa has added points in the last two games against Winnipeg to send Vegas to the final, but he has been injured intermittently all season, including a 23-game stretch (undisclosed) that straddled the end of the regular season and beginning of the playoffs. One does wonder, though, whether there is a vulnerability here in a group in which the defenseman with the second highest average ice time in the postseason (Deryk Engelland) is a somewhat unremarkable journeyman in his ninth season with his third team, never having averaged 20 minutes a game in the regular season until this year.
For the Caps, ice time tells quite a bit. Three defenseman are averaging more than 20 minutes a game at even strength: the Matt Niskanen (21:58)/Dmitry Orlov (21:44) pair, and John Carlson (20:25). After that, the even strength ice time falls off quite a bit until you get to Michal Kempny (17:26). The minutes of third pair of Brooks Orpik (13:50) and Christian Djoos (11:12) suggest that the Caps are going to be looking to shelter them and seek favorable matchups, a hard thing to do with a team as balanced as Vegas. But the Caps do get contributions on offense from the group. All seven defensemen to have dressed for the Caps this spring have points (including Jakub Jerebek in only two games), and four of them have points. The odd part about the offense is that John Carlson, who leads the team with 16 points overall, is just third in even strength points (six), trailing both Niskanen and Orlov (eight apiece). Three Caps defensemen have more points (Carlson, Niskanen, Orlov) than the top Golden Knight defenseman (Theodore: eight points).
Goaltender: This series might turn on which Marc-Andre Fleury shows up for the Golden Knights. The prevailing themes concerning Fleury are that: one, he is a Conn Smythe Trophy winner in waiting, virtually assured of the trophy as playoff most valuable player if the Golden Knights win and a contender even if they lose; and second, that his chances for the Smythe (and Vegas’ to win the Cup) are enhanced by his owning the Caps in his postseason career. As to the first point, yes, he is the Smythe frontrunner at this point. He leads all goalies (five games minimum) in goals against average (1.68, a career best), save percentage (.947, a career best), even strength percentage (.956), shorthanded save percentage (.902), and shutouts (four, a career high). He allowed just six goals to the Winnipeg Jets (a .956 save percentage) after dropping the series opener to lead Vegas into the final.
Then there is the “owns the Caps” narrative. It is one of those “facts” that gets swept up into a larger narrative (the Penguins own the Caps) but does not bear close scrutiny. First, you would think that there is a long history here. No, there isn’t. Fleury has faced the Caps only 14 times in the postseason over two series (2009 and 2017; Matt Murray has 12 appearances over two series, in 2016 and 2018). Second, he has not been dominating in those appearances. His win-loss record is just 8-6, a pair of seven-game series wins to his credit. And, his performance numbers against the Caps – a 2.80 goals against average and a .902 save percentage – are not particularly impressive. The question becomes one of whether the Fleury with the hot streak in this postseason shows up, or if the one with the less-impressive-than-commonly-assumed record against the Caps appears.
For the Caps, Braden Holtby being “Holtbeast” could not have come at a better time. If Fleury is the star of this postseason among goalies, Holtby is not far behind. He is second among goalies (five games minimum) in goals against average (2.04) and is third in save percentage (.923). He became the first goaltender in more than 80 years to pitch shutouts in consecutive elimination games without one in the season to that point to bring the Caps to the final. He appears to regained his place among the best postseason goalies of the last 30 years. Among 71 goalies appearing in at least 25 games over that period, only Patrick Lalime has a better goals against average (1.77 in 41 games) than Holtby (2.01 in 77 games), and only Tim Thomas has a better save percentage (.933 in 51 games) than Holtby (.930).
What might be especially important about this series is how Holtby thrives in the face of high shot volumes. In 20 career postseason games in which he faced more than 35 shots on goal, he is 12-8, 1.57, .946. He has won his last nine postseason appearances when facing at least 30 shots on goal.
Special Teams: The good news for the Washington Capitals is that they have an extremely efficient and effective power play. Their 28.8 percent conversion rate is second in the postseason, and their 17 goals scored on the man advantage is tops in the league. The bad news is that they do not get a lot of chances to deploy that power play. While their 59 power play chances lead the league, it works out to only 3.1 chances per game. But back to the good news. The Caps’ power play has been consistent in an important respect. They are the only team to be a top-five power play team both at home (28.1 percent/fourth) and on the road (29.6 percent/third).
On the other side, the Vegas power play has been unremarkable in the postseason (17.6 percent/10th of 16 teams). And that performance is made even weaker by their having recorded a third of their power play goals in the postseason in a single game, three of them in a 7-0 win over the San Jose Sharks in Game 1 of their second-round series. This is where the Golden Knights do not get significant contributions from their blue line. Colin Miller does have two goals for the defense, but only Shea Theodore among the rest has as much as a point (an assist). They have had particular struggles on the road where, despite having the fourth-highest number of chances (23), they have only three goals (13.0 percent/14th). They have one goal on 12 chances (8.3 percent) in their last five games on the road.
Washington’s penalty killers overall impress no one. Their 75.4 percent penalty kill ranks 10th among the 16 teams. The trick for the Caps is in limiting opportunities. In the nine games in which the Caps limited their opponent to three or fewer power plays, they are 16-for-18 (88.9 percent) and have a record of 6-3. That eight of those nine games came against Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh, two formidable offensive teams, had to be a factor in the Caps advancing. But where the Caps have struggled in particular has been at home. Their 71.9 percent penalty kill ranks 14th of 16 teams. And, having suffered 32 shorthanded situations at home in the postseason (most in the league), it is going to be something to pay attention to as the series moves to DC.
On the other hand, Vegas has been efficient and consistent. Their 82.5 percent penalty kill ranks fourth overall, despite averaging 3.8 shorthanded situations per game over 15 postseason contests. Their consistency is reflected in the small differences between their home penalty kill (82.1 percent/6th) and that on the road (82.8 percent/5th). They seem to have a higher tolerance for penalty killing frequency than the Caps. Vegas is 10-1 when facing four or fewer shorthanded situations.
Coaches: Washington’s Barry Trotz has an overwhelming advantage in postseason experience compared to that of his counterpart, Gerard Gallant. Trotz comes into this series having been head coach for 108 games in his career, 22nd all-time in the NHL and fifth among coaches currently employed in the league. On the other side, Gallant comes into this series with 21 games of postseason head coaching experience, 15 with this year’s Golden Knights and six with Florida in 2016.
Despite the disparity in experience, both coaches are (as one would expect in the context of a final) to be a good fit of individual personality to team character. Gallant installed a “play fast” concept with the Golden Knights that took advantage of their balance and mitigated their lack of elite skill. He has successfully teased out the maximum in terms of full-team contributions. Trotz has had to deal with losses in personnel, inconsistency in performance among some youngsters, and the loudly ticking clocks on the careers of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. He successfully kept the club from devolving into underachieving soap opera and, quite to the contrary, pulled the strings in the right order and tension to get this club to play better as a whole than the sum of its parts. Both coaches seem to have mastered the art of timing as each club seems to be peaking as they head into this series, Vegas with 12 wins in 15 games, and the Caps vanquishing two teams thought by most to be better in Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay. If there is a difference here, it is that Trotz has dealt with more tension (more from those out the outside looking in) and adversity with this club than Gallant has had with his and done so successfully.
Intangibles: Vegas is the feel good story. First year team goes to the championship round. We’ll admit to wearing “Rock the Red” colored glasses, but we’re trying to figure out what the “feel-good” part of this is as a hockey matter. It is an interesting story, an odd story given the history of expansion teams in pro sports in general, but what about their season on the ice should make anyone feel good? As for the team itself, there is no pressure, and no pressure is the best pressure. Vegas can go out and do what they do, which has been most impressive in the postseason. They just keep winning, and despite the numbers and the fancystats and the algorithms, that is all that counts.
Washington’s story is richer and more complex. Having once fielded the worst team of all time in the NHL (the 1974-1975 club likely to keep that claim until the sun goes dark), the history ever since has been one of a team that just can’t seem to break through, haunted by demons – the Islanders in the 1980’s, the Penguins in the 1990’s and 2000’s. Add to that the long narrative arc of Alex Ovechkin’s career – the child prodigy, the effervescent star, the perceived underachieving playoff performer, the graying freak of nature pursuing a championship in the autumn of his career – and the long drought in DC big-four sports of getting within a time zone of a championship over the last 25 years (except for the Caps’ run to the final in 1998), and there are no shortages of intangibles on which the Caps can draw.
The Caps will win if…
They can stay out of the box. Their possession numbers (shot attempts-for percentage overall) are not significantly different (49.78 percent) than Vegas (50.37 percent). On the other hand, the Caps lead the league in 5-on-5 goals in the postseason (39) and are a plus-10 in 5-on-5 goals for/goals against. They will also need the contributions from personnel down the roster. Players like Devante Smith-Pelly, Brett Connolly, or Jay Beagle don't have to chip in a lot, but they do have to chip in from time to time, as they did in the first three rounds.
Vegas will win if…
The 2018 playoff Marc-Andre Fleury is the one that shows up, not the unremarkable one that has faced the Caps 14 times in the postseason. This is almost certainly the most influential variable on this series. Who wins depends on which Fleury suits up. But keep this in mind. Fleury's numbers look suspiciously like those of Olaf Kolzig going into the 1998 final -- utterly dominant. Things did not end well for Kolzig in the final. Fleury can call on much more experience than could Kolzig in 1998, but the point is that things can turn quickly.
In the end…
Vegas probably beat better teams in San Jose and Winnipeg to reach the final; the Caps faced sterner tests in facing down their ultimate nemesis in the Penguins and a team they had never beaten in the postseason in Tampa Bay (albeit in only two series). The story lines abound in this series, from individual players (like Fleury and Ovechkin) to two coaches appearing in the first final for each to the front office where old college teammates (Brian MacLellan and George McPhee of Bowling Green State University) are on opposite sides of the divide. It is not hyperbole to say that on the eve of its commencement, this is the most compelling final series in recent memory.
Capitals in six