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Stanley Cup Final 2018: Players to watch

Stanley Cup Final 2018: Players to watch

It doesn't take an expert to tell you players like Alex Ovechkin or Marc-Andre Fleury will play a big role in the Stanley Cup Final.

Both the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights will need their best players to be at their best to take home the Cup. But who will be the unexpected heroes? Who are the players no one is talking about who will have a big hand in their team's success or defeat in this series?

Here are five players you should be watching in the Stanley Cup:

1. Devante Smith-Pelly: Smith-Pelly had seven goals in 79 games in the regular season. Now he has four goals in just 19 playoff games.

Smith-Pelly has been one of those unlikely playoff heroes for the Caps this postseason with very timely performances such as scoring the series-clinching goal in Game 6 against the Columbus Blue and scoring the goal that put the game away in Game 6 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The physical play has really stood out as well for him, which fits well on the fourth line role he has settled back into now that the team is healthy again. Barry Trotz tried moving him to the top line in the absence of Tom Wilson and the results weren't great. He is best suited for the role he currently has and that will allow him to thrive.

2. James Neal: Neal came up just short of the Stanley Cup last season as a member of the Nashville Predators. He totaled nine points in 22 games during that run, a number he has already matched in just 15 games this postseason.

There are very few players on either team that boast the kind of postseason experience Neal has. He will be leaned upon this series for his leadership.

Vegas is a young team and their unprecedented success in the playoffs may make this feel like the first run of many for the Golden Knights, but not for Neal who is on the last year of his contract and came tantalizingly close to the Cup last season. He will play like there is no tomorrow because, for him, there may not be in Vegas.

3. Andre Burakovsky: Burakovsky was one of the heroes of Game 7 with two goals to put away the Tampa Bay Lightning. That marked just the latest peak in a career full of peaks and valleys for the young winger. Just two games before, Burakovsky was a healthy scratch and spoke to the media about his plans to speak with a sports psychologist in the offseason.

The talent is there and it certainly appears that the injury that kept him out earlier in the playoffs is largely behind him. Burakovsky’s issues have always been mainly between the ears. In a series against a fast team with strong depth, he can be an absolutely critical piece for the Caps. Hopefully, his Game 7 performance gave him the confidence he needs to continue to be effective.

4. Ryan Reaves: Vegas acquired both Reaves and Tomas Tatar around the trade deadline. If I were to tell you that through three rounds of the playoffs, both players were healthy, had played the same number of games (6) and had the same number of points (1), you’d think I was crazy. Yet, here we are.

Reaves was largely an afterthought in a complicated trade between Vegas, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Ottawa Senators, but he has carved a nice role for himself on the Golden Knights’ fourth line and even scored the goal that sent Vegas to the Stanley Cup Final against the Winnipeg Jets.

Reaves is also an agitator on the ice, but what do the Caps do against a player like that when their normal fighter plays on the top line? We may see Reaves and Wilson come to blows this series, but it won't be very often because that is a bad tradeoff for the Caps.

5. Brooks Orpik: The elder statesman of the blue line, Orpik is the only player on the Caps with a Stanley Cup to his name and is the only one who has any idea what this experience is going to be like for the team.

Orpik is very diligent about keeping in shape which has allowed him to play in 81 games this season and all 19 playoff games despite being 37 years old, but you do have to wonder how much is left in the tank. Despite being the favorite whipping boy for the proponents of analytics, his physical play has been effective this postseason. The focus he placed on the skating in the offseason has paid dividends so far in matchups against the speedy Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning, but the Golden Knights will be the fastest team they have played yet. There is no denying Orpik is much more suited towards a physical style of game. Wil he continue to be effective or will Vegas exploit the Caps' third defensive pairing?

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Braden Holtby is back, Carl Hagelin heats up and 700 is coming

Braden Holtby is back, Carl Hagelin heats up and 700 is coming

The Capitals may have lost to the Arizona Coyotes 3-1 on Saturday, but if Braden Holtby and Alex Ovechkin kept playing like they did, that will lead to a lot more wins down the line.

Check out a recap of the game here.

Observations from the loss

Holtby looks like Holtby again

It's a loss, but there are some positives to take away from this game and the biggest is the play of Holtby. Antti Raanta was the star of this game, but Holtby was just as good for Washington with 28 saves on 30 shots. In the third period with the Caps trailing by 1, Arizona tried to close the game, but could not because of Holtby. He absolutely robbed Derek Stepan who stole the puck away from Dmitry Orlov and was in on net. Holtby poked the puck away, but it was still loose in front. Stepan wheeled around to get the shot, but Holtby somehow managed to deny him.

Holtby was Washington's best player. This game may have been a loss, but if Holtby is back to his normal form that will translate to a lot of wins down the stretch of the season.

Raanta was great, but the Caps' offense still wasn't good enough

I think the Caps deserved a better outcome in this game than the one they got, but even with 36 shots on goal and a great performance by Antti Raanta, Washington could have made things tougher on the Coyotes' netminder.

Despite the high volume of shots, there weren't enough high-danger chances and not nearly enough sustained offensive pressure. The offense looked the most dangerous in the first period, but Washington was not able to really push that in the final 40 minutes.

You can't always rely on Ovechkin, you have to be able to generate offense from the rest of the lineup. Not having Evgeny Kuznetsov hurts, but injuries happen and the Caps have very good center depth. They have to play better offensively regardless.

Watch those wings

An issue I have noticed since the team returned from the all-star break is the defense's tendency to lose wings when they go wide. Several teams have taken advantage of this with forwards going wide down the wings, then cutting in behind the defense and Christian Dvorak's goal was an example of that. In this case, Dvorak turns as he goes down the wing as if he was setting up to shoot so I wonder if Jonas Siegenthaler did not expect him to cut inside, but that's exactly what he did and Siegenthaler was slow to react.

This is an issue more on odd-man breaks with the defense stepping into the middle to defend the puck and losing track of what the wings are doing so perhaps Saturday's goal was not indicative of the pattern, but still something to keep an eye on.

700 is coming

With no goals in four straight games, this is now the longest goalless drought of the season for Ovechkin, but don't worry, it's coming.

Ovechkin had 17 total shot attempts in this game with eight shots on goal. He also hit one off the post. I think initially No. 700 was in his head and neither he nor the team was playing well as a result. Now he looks as dangerous as ever and he is going to torch someone for those last two goals sooner rather than later.

Turning point

With the game tied at 1 in the third period, Phil Kessel gave Arizona the lead with a power play deflection to beat Holtby high to the glove side.

The play was really set up by Jakob Chychrun as the Coyotes went low to high, passing out to Chychrun at the blue line. Chychrun wound up for the shot, seemed to hesitate for just a moment, then delivered a slap pass right to the stick of Kessel for the deflection. Chychrun knew exactly what he was doing on that play and delivered the great pass.

Play of the game

Holtby was Washington's best player on Saturday and it was because of saves like this. Watch this highway robbery of Stepan.

Stat of the game

Offense has been a bit tough to come by for the third line and Carl Hagelin in particular, but both are really starting to heat up.

Quote of the game

Ovechkin had 17 shot attempts and eight shots. He did everything but score and he was encouraged by that rather than frustrated.

"I would be pissed if I don't have any chances, but it's OK. It's going to come."

Fan predictions

He definitely tried and credit to you for going bold.

I've been seeing a lot of calls for a Holtby goal lately. He's a great stickhandler so I could definitely see it happening. He didn't get the chance on Saturday though.

You got the Holtby part right. He finished with a .931. The other two...well, you were about as hot as Washington's offense.

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports. Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Capitals and Wizards games easily from your device.

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Capitals can't solve Antti Raanta, fall to Coyotes in the desert

Capitals can't solve Antti Raanta, fall to Coyotes in the desert

Arizona Coyotes goalie Antti Raanta stifled a strong Capitals' attack all night long as he handed Washington a 3-1 loss on Saturday. The Caps deserved points for their performance in Arizona, but that's what happens when you run into a hot goalie.

Here is why Washington lost.

Antti Raanta 

It takes goals to win, but there's no question why the Coyotes walked away with two points and that was between the pipes. Raanta was brilliant for Arizona with 35 saves.

Washington had plenty of opportunities to take control of this game offensively early on. and poured 14 shots on goal in the opening frame. Raanta really frustrated a Caps' team that seemed to be largely in control at the start in all areas but the scoreboard.

Raanta was particularly strong against Alex Ovechkin who looked more dangerous than he has in any of the four straight games in which he has now been held without a goal. Ovechkin had 17 shot attempts total and managed to get eight of those shots on net. Raanta turned aside all eight to keep Ovechkin at 698 career goals.

With no goals in four games, this is now the longest goalless streak for Ovechkin this season.

Troubling trends

Overall, this was a good defensive game for Washington. But when Arizona finally got on the board in the second period, it was the result of some familiar issues.

Lars Eller managed to get the puck away from Arizona in the defensive zone and tried to launch the breakout. His deke on Christian Dvorak was too strong and he ended up turning the puck over in the neutral zone. As Arizona was just leaving the offensive zone, they were in good position to immediately break the puck back in. Dvorak dropped the puck off to Connor Garland then went wide on the wing. Jonas Siegenthaler was slow to react and when Garland returned the puck to Dvorak, he was behind the defense and tucked the puck through the 5-hole of Braden Holtby.

Turnovers have been an issue in Washington's recent slump. While Eller's turnover was not all that egregious, it still caught the Caps in a position in which they had to scramble defensively to cover a quick rush. The second issue has been a noticeable issue for Washington since the return from the all-star break and that is wings going wide and cutting in behind the defense. Siegenthaler knew he was there and looked like he was in good position, but he was just too slow to react to Dvorak who may have caught him off guard because he turned his body and was basically skating backward when he got to Siegenthaler. Siegenthaler may have thought Dvorak was looking for a one-timer or a pass and wasn't trying to cut behind him. Either way, that's exactly what he did and was alone in front of Holtby.

A Kessel deflection

With the game tied at 1 in the third period, Phil Kessel gave Arizona the lead with a power play deflection to beat Braden Holtby high to the glove side.

The play was really set up by Jakob Chychrun as the Coyotes went low to high, passing out to Chychrun at the blue line. Chychrun wound up for the shot, seemed to hesitate for just a moment, then delivered a slap pass right to the stick of Kessel for the deflection. Chychrun knew exactly what he was doing on that play and delivered the great pass.

An empty-net goal with less than a minute remaining for Lawson Crouse would seal the deal.

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports. Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Capitals and Wizards games easily from your device.

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