The Vegas Golden Knights and Washington Capitals will meet in an unlikely Stanley Cup Final. Washington finally managed to break through and advance past the second round during the Alex Ovechkin era, while Vegas made a habit of rewriting the history books during their incredible expansion season.
The storybook season of the Golden Knights continues as the team has qualified for the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural year of NHL operation. Vegas has compiled a 12-3 record in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Golden Knights dispatched the Los Angeles Kings in four games in the first round and the San Jose Sharks were ousted in six games in the second round. In the Western Conference Final, Vegas needed just five games to eliminate the Winnipeg Jets, which was a team that had the second-best record during the regular season.
The play of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has been a key reason behind Vegas’ success in the postseason. The Golden Knights have been outshot 505-473 in 15 games, but Fleury has posted a 1.68 goals-against average, a .947 save percentage and four shutouts. His .947 save percentage ranks first among goaltenders who played at least 10 games in a single postseason since 1953-54.
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The top line of the Golden Knights has accounted for most of the team’s offense during the playoffs. Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith and William Karlsson combined for seven goals and 15 points during the Western Conference Final. Marchessault leads the team with eight goals and 18 points. Smith is first on the club with 14 assists and second with 16 points, while Karlsson has collected six goals and 13 points. Second-liners James Neal (four goals, five assists) and Alex Tuch (six goals, three assists) have been productive as well during Vegas’ playoff run.
The shutdown pairing of Nate Schmidt and Brayden McNabb has been an underrated success against the top players of the opposition. They have also generated four goals and seven helpers between them. Shea Theodore has the most points on the Vegas back end with a total of seven.
The Capitals have overcome a great deal of adversity to qualify for the Stanley Cup Final. Washington was down 2-0 to Columbus in the first round before winning four straight contests. In the second round, the Capitals exorcized some demons with a six-game series win over Pittsburgh, who were looking for their third straight Stanley Cup, and during the Eastern Conference Final they rallied from a 3-2 series deficit and won Game 7 on the road versus Tampa Bay to punch their ticket to the final round of the postseason. The Lightning had the best record in the Eastern Conference in the regular season and had more wins than Winnipeg despite finishing one point behind them in the overall standings. Washington also had to play some games without Nicklas Backstrom due to a hand injury and Tom Wilson because of a suspension.
Alex Ovechkin has been on a mission this playoffs with 12 goals and 22 points through 19 games. Evgeny Kuznetsov has been all over the scoresheet as well with 11 goals and a postseason-leading 24 points in 19 matches. Washington has received plenty of depth scoring with Backstrom posting 16 points in 15 appearances and T.J. Oshie accounting for 15 points in 19 contests. Lars Eller, who stepped up when Backstrom was hurt, has generated 13 points in 19 games.
Washington’s John Carlson has the most points among defensemen in the postseason with 16 through 19 outings. Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen have been unsung heroes on the back end with a 53.14 CF%. They are frequently matched up against the best the opposition has to offer. Orlov and Niskanen have contributed eight points apiece and they have combined to register 81 blocked shots.
Braden Holtby rattled off two straight shutouts in Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against Tampa Bay. The goose eggs were his first of the year after he didn’t pick one up during the regular season for the first time in his career. Holtby has earned a 2.04 goals-against average and .924 save percentage in 18 playoff appearances. Both teams have been continually doubted during their respective playoff runs.
The well-rested Golden Knights have home-ice advantage and their domination of their opponents has been nothing short of amazing. On the other side, the Capitals’ resiliency and hunger to win has been apparent throughout their trip to the Stanley Cup Final. Washington also displayed the ability to frustrate and slow down the high-octane Lightning, which should help prepare them for Vegas. The Capitals’ scoring depth could be the deciding factor in this series, especially if Fleury’s hot play cools down a bit and Washington’s power play continues to roll. Ovechkin will not want to let this opportunity slip away and Holtby finally has a chance to be on the winning side against Fleury in a playoff series. I’m taking the Capitals in six games for their first Stanley Cup championship.
Vegas projected line combinations:
Marchessault’s six-game point streak ended in Vegas’ series-clinching win over Winnipeg in Game 5. He has six goals and four assists in his last seven outings.
Erik Haula hasn’t scored a goal in six games and he contributed one assist over five contests in the Western Conference Final. Neal has been held off the scoresheet in five of the past six games. He had one goal and one assist in Game 3 against the Jets for his only points during that span.
William Carrier suffered an undisclosed injury back in the second round of the postseason and he hasn’t played since May 4. His status for the start of the Stanley Cup Final is unclear, but he is listed as day-to-day. Coach Gerard Gallant is hopeful that Carrier could be back soon. Carrier’s role in the lineup has been filled by Ryan Reaves, who scored the series winner versus Winnipeg in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final.
Malcolm Subban sat out the last three games of the Western Conference Final due to an undisclosed issue. He is also considered day-to-day with a chance to return during the Stanley Cup Final. Maxime Lagace has been serving as Fleury’s backup in Subban’s place.
The Golden Knights have scored nine goals on 51 power-play opportunities for a 17.6 percent success rate. Marchessault ranks first on the team with six points on the man advantage. Tuch leads the club with three power-play goals.
Vegas has surrendered 10 goals against on the penalty kill, while being shorthanded 57 times. That gives them a penalty kill percentage of 82.5 percent.
Vegas has allowed just 1.80 goals against per game, while scoring 2.87 goals for per contest. The Golden Knights have a 6-1 record at home in the postseason.
The highest Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA), which is the number of goals prevented relative to an average goaltender, was established in 2011 by Boston’s Tim Thomas (24.56). Fleury currently has a GSAA of 19.46.
Fleury has posted a mark of 8-6 against the Capitals in his playoff career with a 2.80 goals-against average and .902 save percentage.
Washington projected line combinations:
Evgeny Kuznetsov extended his point streak to 10 straight games with four goals and six assists in six contests during the Eastern Conference Final. He has accumulated 15 points during his scoring spree.
Jakub Vrana hasn’t scored a goal in eight consecutive contests and he has just one assists during that stretch. He has played up and down the lineup during that time, but will need to start producing again to stay on Washington’s second line.
Washington does not have any injuries to report going into Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. Backstrom may not be 100 percent yet following his hand injury, but he has contributed one goal and two assists in his last two games. Devante Smith-Pelly and Brooks Orpik were banged up in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, but they appear to be good to go for Monday.
The Capitals have tallied 3.47 goals for per game in the playoffs and they have permitted just 2.47 goals against per contest.
Washington’s power-play has clicked at a 28.8 success rate in the postseason. They lead all teams in goals (17) and power-play opportunities (59). Carlson is first on the team with 10 points on the man advantage, while Oshie is second among all players with five power-play goals and tied for third overall with nine points. Backstrom, Ovechkin and Kuznetsov have nine points apiece as well.
The Capitals own a 75.4 percent efficiency rating on the penalty kill. They have surrendered 15 power-play goals against, which is the most in the playoffs, and they have been shorthanded 61 times.
Washington has gone 8-2 on the road during the playoffs.
The Capitals lead the postseason with 603 hits, but Vegas is close behind with a total of 595 and the Golden Knights have averaged more hits per game.