Call it Stanley Cup: Ragnarok, because this is the final nobody saw coming. While the expansion Golden Knights have defied expectations since Game 1 of the regular season, the Capitals have been slaying demons left and right in the playoffs. And in a nice change of pace, both teams still looked energized in the conference final, with relatively few injuries. That bodes well for the championship series, where fans can expect high-octane, physical hockey that won’t be the typical last-team-standing wins series we have become accustomed to in the final. The NHL will also get a first-time Cup winner no matter who takes the chalice, too. Vegas, naturally, has never had a shot before, while Washington is competing in the final for the first time since 1998.
Why the Capitals Win
After being sat for most of the first two games of the playoffs against Columbus, star netminder Braden Holtby is living up to his reputation as a Vezina-winning goalie, posting back-to-back shutouts in two straight elimination games against Tampa Bay. He is in the zone right now and with his ability to track pucks, it’s going to be tough to rattle him at this point.
As for the skaters in front of Holtby, the Capitals are playing rambunctious hockey right now and scoring a ton of goals while doing it. Only Pittsburgh scored more goals per game in the post-season and Washington dusted the Penguins in six. Alex Ovechkin is leading the way, with his big-time shot and beastly size proving too hard to handle. But up and down the lineup the Caps put Tampa Bay on its heels, with players like Tom Wilson, T.J. Oshie and Brooks Orpik dishing out punishment (which may explain why Nikita Kucherov was invisible when it counted). Getting Andre Burakovsky into the mix with a key two-goal performance in Game 7 makes the Caps even more dangerous, while Nicklas Backstrom’s healing hand and Evgeny Kuznetsov’s ice-cold killer demeanour just add to the barrage. Needless to say, the Caps are in a good place right now.
Why the Golden Knights Win
Because that’s all they do? For a team making its post-season debut, the Golden Knights aren’t particularly tentative; they’ve rolled through the West by beating a recent two-time champ in L.A., a game San Jose squad and one of the best teams in the league in Winnipeg. Vegas has lost just three games total to this point. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is the Conn Smythe favorite by a mile right now, while the defense corps has a great mixture of puckmovers and crease-clearers. Nate Schmidt in particular has been a workhorse and it’ll be fun to see him go up against his old Caps teammates in the final.
The obvious driver of the Vegas offense is the speed and depth the Golden Knights trot out each night, led by Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith. Coach Gerard Gallant takes advantage of his depth, as even enforcer Ryan Reaves has played nearly eight minutes per game (and ended up scoring the series-winning goal against his hometown Jets).
The Golden Knights come out of the gates hot, often scoring early and never looking back. It’s been a rare occasion when they’ve been trailing on the scoreboard. And as speedy as they are, the Sin City squad can also bring a good amount of grit to the table if things get nasty.
Five Things to Watch
1. Power Play. Not that the Golden Knights have needed it, but the Vegas power play has been just OK in the post-season. Washington has a big advantage in that category and we know Ovechkin can be deadly in his office.
2. Feel-good Coaches. In Barry Trotz and Gerard Gallant, the series boasts two coaches who are getting the most from their charges. Neither has won the Cup before, so there is extra motivation all around.
3. The Right Hand. Star Washington center Nicklas Backstrom has gone from a wrapped hand to an unwrapped hand by the end of the Tampa series and yes, we analyze everything in hockey. But if the Swedish pivot is getting healthier, that’s great news for the Caps.
4. Heavyweight Tilt. While fighting doesn’t usually play a big role in the final, it seems almost inevitable that Washington’s Tom Wilson and Vegas enforcer Ryan Reaves are going to cross paths at some point. Both are energizers for their teams.
5. Fortress Nevada. In case you didn’t notice, the Golden Knights are pretty good at home. They’ve only dropped two at T-Mobile Arena through three rounds and Ovechkin once likened road games in Vegas to “pool parties.” Can Washington deflect the distractions? We know the Knights will feed off their amazing atmosphere.
THN Prediction: Washington in 7.
LINE COMBOS, DEFENSE PAIRINGS & GOALIES: