We’re all anxiously awaiting the strength-versus-strength battles of Washington’s best against Vegas’ finest, but the Capitals or Golden Knights could benefit as much, if not more, from dynamite performances from their depth players.
The Stanley Cup final will be said to feature a showdown between Alex Ovechkin and William Karlsson, two of the league’s top goal scorers. Much will be said about the goaltending matchup of Marc-Andre Fleury and Braden Holtby. And more yet will be written about the top-six battles that will feature Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom up against the likes of Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith and James Neal.
However, the Stanley Cup final, like so many other post-season series in NHL history, will be decided as much by the top stars as it is by the depth of the individual rosters. Over the next two or so weeks — or however long it takes either the Washington Capitals or Vegas Golden Knights to emerge victorious in this best-of-seven to decide the Stanley Cup champion — it will be as much up to the lesser-lights as it is to the all-stars to make a difference if they want to hoist the sport’s greatest prize.
But which depth players could make the biggest impact when the final begins in Vegas come Monday? Here are five skaters who could turn the tide:
Jakub Vrana, LW, Washington Capitals
Technically speaking, Vrana might no longer be considered a depth player for the Capitals seeing as he’s worked his way into the top-six and has been earning himself minutes out alongside Backstrom and Oshie. We’re going to make the call here, though, and say he qualifies given his average ice time throughout the post-season is less than 12 minutes per game. Truth be told, even despite his most common linemates, Vrana averaged about 13 minutes as a top-six skater across the final three games in the Eastern Conference final.
Now, that said, Vrana is an incredibly talented skater who brings excitement every time the puck is on his stick. During Game 7 of the conference final, he nearly scored a dandy of a goal but his near-perfectly placed shot clanked iron. And sure, he has only scored two goals and six points this post-season, but consider Vrana’s underlying numbers. Per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, Vrana leads the Capitals in scoring chances, high-danger chances, is second only to Ovechkin in shot attempts and ranks fifth in shots on goal. Given enough chances — and he’s making that happen — Vrana is going to make his mark.
Alex Tuch, RW, Vegas Golden Knights
Tuch has that old-school, power forward feel to him, especially when he gets motoring downhill. Standing 6-foot-4 and 222 pounds, Tuch was another one of those Golden Knights expansion draft acquisitions who had a breakout year. In his first full campaign in the NHL, he buried 15 goals and registered 37 points in 78 games, and he did so while skating bottom-six minutes throughout the campaign. As far as ice time goes, Tuch’s role hasn’t changed much in the post-season, but he’s sure hitting his stride. In 15 games, Tuch has six goals and nine points.
Undoubtedly, much of the focus from the Washington defense is going to be on Vegas’ top line, and that may require a secondary scorer to step up at some point in the Stanley Cup final. Tuch seems the perfect choice to do so. He can dominate physically, he’s got an offensive flair and he’s been serviceable defensively, at worst. Add in Tuch’s play on the power play, where he has chipped in three of his six goals, and it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see his name in the game-winning goal column before the final is over.
Lars Eller, C, Washington Capitals
Throughout his now nine-year career — seems crazy, right? — Eller has carved out a fine living as a depth contributor, and he made good on the Capitals’ faith in his ability to continue to do when he had a career year in the first season of his five-year, $17.5-million pact. But as the playoffs have worn on, Eller’s 18 goals and 38 points in 81 games during the regular season have taken a backseat to his post-season performance. In 19 games, Eller has chipped in five goals and 13 points as Washington’s third-line pivot.
Eller has brought so much more than scoring, though. He ranks 10th in shots for percentage, sixth in shot attempts for percentage and seventh in scoring chances for percentage among all Capitals skaters, and his individual numbers have played a big part in that. Only two regulars, Ovechkin and Kuznetsov, have a higher rate of shots per 60 minutes at five-a-side, and Eller also ranks third in attempts, fifth in scoring chances and fourth in high-danger attempts. He’s generating opportunities and it’s paying dividends for the Capitals. If he breaks free as often as he has through the first three rounds, Eller could be a nuisance for Vegas in the final.
Colin Miller, D, Vegas Golden Knights
The Golden Knights blueline is interesting in that the dispersal of minutes is pretty even across the board. Matter of fact, the gap between the top minute-munching defender, Nate Schmidt, and the fifth defenseman, Miller, is only about five minutes per game. Compare that to the Capitals, who have an eight-plus minute gap between their No. 1 and No. 4 defenders, and you can see the difference. That said, Miller would qualify as the depth guy on the Vegas blueline, and particularly so given he’s the only third-pairing defenseman who hasn’t been rotated out in these playoffs.
Don’t take that to mean Miller can’t make a difference, though. Sure, he has only two goals and three points in these playoffs, but where Miller can make the biggest impact is with the man advantage as either the triggerman or the quarterback. Miller was the Golden Knights’ top scoring blueliner during the regular season in the three major categories with 10 goals and 41 points, and 17 of his points came with the man advantage. The Golden Knights’ power play hasn’t been all that phenomenal during the post-season, but it was a top-10 unit during the campaign and it could heat up at any moment with Miller potentially acting as the spark.
Andre Burakovsky, LW, Washington Capitals
Maybe it’s too easy to pick the guy who went out and scored two goals in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final to parlay that into Stanley Cup final success. But maybe it’s also foolish to assert that a player who has just two points in eight games this post-season, the two aforementioned goals, will somehow make a difference in the final. What we do know, though, is this: Burakovsky is far more talented than his numbers suggest, and those two goals were more than a stroke of good luck paired with great timing.
Statistically speaking, the 2017-18 campaign wasn’t Burakovsky’s best if we go by base numbers, as he scored 12 goals and 25 points in 56 games. But Burakovsky continues to impress with his skating and puck handling ability, and he’s generated nearly one decent scoring chance in every single game he’s played so far this post-season. To say he’s forgotten down the Capitals lineup wouldn’t be right, but he’s not going to be the main point of focus for the Golden Knights defense and that could come back to haunt Vegas if they let him get free just as Tampa did in Game 7 of the conference final.
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