It is perhaps the most surprising Stanley Cup Final matchup in league history.
Just when you thought the championship window was closed, Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals finally exorcised their playoff demons to win the Eastern Conference and advance to the final. They will be playing the Vegas Golden Knights, an expansion team in its very first year in existence that did not even have a roster just one year ago.
Who could have seen this one coming back in September?
The Golden Knights continue to shock the hockey community with every series win. They swept the Los Angeles Kings, dispatched San Jose in six and needed only five games to eliminate the Winnipeg Jets, a team with the second-best record in the regular season who had just eliminated the first place Nashville Predators.
In their very first postseason, Vegas has carried the momentum of a spectacular regular season into a 12-3 record up to the Stanley Cup Final.
But while they may have momentum, the Caps have an air of destiny about them. Not only did they rally from a 2-0 series deficit to win four straight against the Columbus Blue Jackets, they also defeated their archnemesis and the two-time defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Against a heavily favored Tampa Bay Lightning squad, the Caps won three out of four road games including an emphatic 4-0 Game 7 win, thus erasing another playoff stigma for the franchise.
These two teams share some common history despite Vegas being in its inaugural season. Though general manager Brian MacLellan has certainly put his own touches on the Caps' roster and molded them into a champion, the core of Washington was still built by George McPhee. Now the Caps will take on a roster completely built from the ground up by McPhee as the general manager of the Golden Knights.
Will Vegas complete its Cinderella season or will the Caps hoist their first ever Cup at the expense of their former GM?
Stanley Cup Final: Washington Capitals vs. Vegas Golden Knights
Game 1: Capitals at Golden Knights. Monday, 5/28 at 8:00 p.m. ET. (Broadcast on NBC)
Game 2: Capitals at Golden Knights. Wednesday, 5/30 at 8:00 p.m. ET. (Broadcast on NBCSN)
Game 3: Golden Knights at Capitals. Saturday, 6/2 at 8:00 p.m. ET. (Broadcast on NBCSN)
Game 4: Golden Knights at Capitals. Monday, 6/4 at 8:00 p.m. ET. (Broadcast on NBC)
Game 5 (if necessary): Capitals at Golden Knights. Thursday, 6/7 at 8:00 p.m. ET. (Broadcast on NBC)
Game 6 (if necessary): Golden Knights at Capitals. Sunday, 6/10 (Broadcast on NBC)
Game 7 (If Necessary): Capitals at Golden Knights. Wednesday, 6/13 (Broadcast on NBC)
2017-18 Team stats
- 49-26-7, 105 points, first in the Metropolitan Division
- 3.12 goals per game (9th)
- 2.90 goals against per game (16th)
- 22.5-percent power play percentage (7th)
- 80.3 penalty kill percentage (15th)
Vegas Golden Knights
- 51-24-7, 109 points, first in the Pacific Division
- 3.27 goals per game (5th)
- 2.74 goals against per game (8th)
- 21.4 power play percentage (9th)
- 81.4 penalty kill percentage (11th)
- Alex Ovechkin – 49
- Evgeny Kuznetsov – 27
- Nicklas Backstrom – 21
- Alex Ovechkin - 12
- Evgeny Kuznetsov - 11
- T.J. Oshie - 7
- Evgeny Kuznetsov – 56
- John Carlson – 53
- Nicklas Backstrom – 50
- John Carlson - 13
- Evgeny Kuznetsov -13
- Nicklas Backstrom - 12
- Alex Ovechkin – 87
- Evgeny Kuznetsov – 83
- Nicklas Backstrom – 71
- Evgeny Kuznetsov - 24
- Alex Ovechkin - 22
- John Carlson - 16
- Nicklas Backstrom - 16
- William Karlsson - 43
- Erik Haula - 29
- Jonathan Marchessault - 27
- Jonathan Marchessault - 8
- Alex Tuch - 6
- William Karlsson - 6
- David Perron - 50
- Jonathan Marchessault - 48
- Reilly Smith - 38
- Reilly Smith - 14
- Jonathan Marchessault - 10
- David Perron - 7
- William Karlsson - 7
- William Karlsson - 78
- Jonathan Marchessault - 75
- David Perron - 66
- Jonathan Marchessault - 18
- Reilly Smith - 16
- William Karlsson - 13
Braden Holtby: 54 GP, 34-16-4 record, .907 save percentage, 2.99 GAA, 0 shutouts
Philipp Grubauer: 35 GP, 15-10-3 record, .923 save percentage, 2.35 GAA, 3 shutouts
Braden Holtby: 18 GP, 12-6 record, .923 save percentage, 2.04 GAA, 2 shutouts
Philipp Grubauer: 2 GP, 0-1 record, .837 save percentage, 4.55 GAA, 0 shutouts
March-Andre Fleury: 46 GP, 29-13-4 record, .927 save percentage, 2.24 GAA, 4 shutouts
Malcolm Subban: 22 GP, 13-4-2 record, .910 save percentage, 2.68 GAA, 0 shutouts
Maxime Legace: 16 GP, 6-7-1 record, .867 save percentage, 3.92 GAA, 0 shutouts
Oscar Dansk: 4 GP, 3-0-0 record, .946 save percentage, 1.78 GAA, 1 shutout
Dylan Ferguson: 1 GP, 0-0-0 record, .500 save percentage, 6.50 GAA, 0 shutouts
Marc-Andre Fleury: 15 GP, 12-3 record, .947 save percentage, 1.68 GAA, 4 shutouts
Capitals finished with a 0-2-0 record against Vegas
Dec. 23: 3-0 Vegas win
The Caps' first trip to Vegas was a rough one. Washington was taken complete surprise by the speed and forecheck of the Golden Knights who built a 3-0 lead in the first period and ride that all the way to the finish line.
Feb. 4: 4-3 Vegas win
Washington really struggled against the speed and forecheck of Vegas in a mistake-filled game. The Caps saw a 3-2 third period lead evaporate in a 4-3 loss.
The Caps have faced elimination only twice in the playoffs and Braden Holtby did not allow a single goal in either game. He enters the Stanley Cup Final having not allowed a single goal in 159:27. Andrei Vasilevskiy began to take over the series with his performance in Game 3, Game 4 and Game 5, but Holtby outplayed him to finish off the series in Washington’s favor. Marc-Andre Fleury, meanwhile, has been the best player in the playoffs. Not the best goalie, the best player.
Both of these goalies are certainly capable of stealing away a series for their respective teams. Which one will outplay the other?
2. Time off
Rust is a real thing in hockey. Just any team when they come off a bye week. When the Caps and Golden Knights take the ice on Monday, May 28, it will be the first game for Vegas since May 20. That’s over a week off.
Yes, getting rest at this time of the year is important, but too much rest leads to rust and that should be a major concern for Vegas, especially for a team that was playing so well and has so much momentum.
3. The McPhee factor
Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee was the Caps’ general manager for 17 years starting with the 1997-98 season. He knows the players very, very well.
Nicklas Backstrom, Travis Boyd, Andre Burakovsky, John Carlson, Christian Djoos, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, Chandler Stephenson, Jakub Vrana, Tom Wilson, Braden Holtby, Philipp Grubauer and of course, Alex Ovechkin were all drafted by McPhee. Jay Beagle was also signed by as an undrafted free agent. Does that give McPhee a bit of an edge when it comes to facing the Caps?
The Golden Knights are fast. When the expansion draft was all said and done it was clear McPhee had targeted two things specifically: defensemen and speed. The result is an exceptionally fast Golden Knights team that no one has been able to keep up with so far.
Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh were both fast teams as well and the Capitals were able to combat that with strong play in the neutral zone. The 1-3-1 trap has given opponents fits and generated a lot of odd-man breaks for the Caps. Will it be as effective against a speedy Vegas team?
Players to watch
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.
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.
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: The talent is there for Burakovsky and it certainly appears that the injury that kept him out earlier in the playoffs is largely behind him. His 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: 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. 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.
Keys to the series
Figure out how to beat Marc-Andre Fleury
No player has been as important to his team this postseason as Fleury is to the Golden Knights. His personal numbers are staggering. Through 15 games, he has a .947 save percentage and has recorded four shutouts. Vegas has lost only three playoff games thus far, but, as dominant as they have been, they certainly are not blowing away the competition. Of their 12 wins, ten of them have come with a margin of victory of two goals or less.
Fleury is the absolute key to the Golden Knights’ success. It’s easier said than done, but if the Caps find a way to beat him consistently, Vegas becomes exponentially more beatable.
Win the neutral zone battle
The Golden Knights are an incredibly fast team. Just to get to this point, the Caps had to beat two other speedy teams in the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning. They did it primarily by slowing down the offense in the neutral zone with a 1-1-3 trap. As fast as the Penguins and Lightning were, however, the Golden Knights are even faster. Will the trap be as effective against Vegas?
Limit obstruction penalties
When playing against a team with speed, penalties often become a major issue. When trying to defend against fast players, if you get caught flat-footed or out of position, this tends to lead to obstruction penalties like tripping and hooking.
Vegas’ power play has not been lights out by any means, but you cannot continually give the opposition chances to score by frequently having a player sent to the penalty box.
Get off to good starts
Vegas is 10-1 in the postseason when scoring first. Just getting the puck and keeping up with a team as fast as the Golden Knights is exhausting. Having to then find a way to then beat Fleury when he has a lead to protect is all the more daunting.
Vegas head coach Gerard Gallant likes to roll his four lines. It makes sense since the drop-off between his top line and fourth line is not as dramatic as it is on most NHL teams. The Caps may have a stronger top six, but Vegas can take advantage of other teams’ bottom six.
Washington will probably get more production from its top six than Vegas will, or at the very least it will be a push. The question is what kind of production will each team get from the bottom six? If the Caps have the edge in depth production as well, they will be in good shape.
Joe Beninati, NBC Sports Washingon Capitals play-by-play announcer: Capitals in 6
Ryan Billie, NBC Sports Washingon Capitals senior TV producer: Capitals in 7
Tarik El-Bashir, NBC Sports Washingon Capitals Insider: Capitals in 7
Rob Carlin, NBC Sports Washington on-air host of Capitals GameTime and Capitals Extra: Capitals in 6
Al Koken, NBC Sports Washington Capitals on-ice reporter: Capitals in 6
Courtney Laughlin, Caps FaceOff and Caps Overtime panelist: Capitals in 6
Craig Laughlin, NBC Sports Washingon Capitals color commentator: Capitals in 6
Alan May, NBC Sports Washingon Capitals analyst: Capitals in 6
Grant Paulsen, host of Caps FaceOff and Caps Overtime: Golden Knights in 6
JJ Regan, NBC Sports Washingon Capitals Digital Producer: Capitals in 6
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- Tale of the tape: Washington vs. Vegas
- Nostra-Harper: Bryce Harper called the Caps vs. Golden Knights matchup