As it should be, two clubs that won their respective divisions after an 82-game grind and have a deep, extensive connection to one another will meet for a chance to earn the first Stanley Cup in the history of either city.
Poetry, ain’t it?
Washington owner Ted Leonsis obviously paid off the refs during each of the Capitals’ series. The NHL intentionally botched the expansion draft rules so that Vegas would be a lock to make the final in its first year of existence, and played the system to ensure this succulent matchup would be the one featured during the 2018 Stanley Cup Final. Kidding, of course, but the league couldn’t rig up a better showdown if it tried.
Vegas-Washington might feature more juicer storylines than any Cup Final in decades, and here’s a few of them to sink your teeth into:
Ovi vs. his old pal Fleury
Alex Ovechkin has had the postseason of his life, but so has his old buddy Marc-Andre Fleury. The two former division foes know each other well from Fleury’s time in Pittsburgh, and previous playoff clashes between the Caps and Pens haven’t gone Ovi’s way. Since the Ovechkin era began, a Fleury-led Penguins squad has knocked the Capitals out twice — both in agonizing Game 7 fashion.
Though Fleury has had the edge in victories, his .902 save percentage over 14 postseason contests against Ovi and the Capitals isn’t anything spectacular. Ovechkin, on the other hand, has seen success against MAF in the playoffs, scoring 10 times on the former Penguins netminder during those 14 games and posting a shooting percentage of 16.1 (compared to his overall playoff SH% of 11.0).
GM George McPhee: Architect of two
George McPhee’s formidable fingerprints are all over both of these clubs, and he has to be commended for being responsible for drafting, signing, or acquiring over 75 percent of the talent suiting up in the Stanley Cup final. McPhee, of course, was the architect of the fledgling Golden Knights and oversaw the expansion draft and subsequent trading and signing periods which formed Vegas’s roster into the powerhouse it is today.
And lest we forget the impact McPhee had in Washington during his 17-year stint in D.C., drafting and developing or signing 13 current regulars in the Capitals’ lineup, including Ovechkin, Nick Backstrom, Jay Beagle, Andre Burakovsky, John Carlson, Braden Holtby, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, Dmitry Orlov and Chandler Stephenson. This final is essentially McPhee’s former Large Adult Sons versus his new Large Adult Sons.
Caps’ road domination vs. Golden Knights at home
With Vegas grabbing four more points than Washington during the regular season, the Golden Knights hold home-ice advantage and could see as many as four of the seven potential contests played in the friendly confines of T-Mobile Arena, where VGK went 29-10-2 during their first regular season. That home success has carried over to the playoffs, too, with Vegas going 6-1 in Sin City through the fist three rounds.
But their incoming opponents might have something to say about that, as the majority of Washington’s success in the 2018 postseason has been found on the road. The Capitals stole multiple road victories in each series against Columbus, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay, respectively, while going 8-2 overall and outscoring the the Blue Jackets, Penguins and Lightning by a combined score of 35-19 in their rinks.
Vegas’s general manager isn’t the only Capitals castoff set to face off against his old club. Smooth-skating blueliner Nate Schmidt was never really more than a bottom-pairing guy in Washington — he had 43 points and averaged 16:34 TOI in 200 games — but with the glowing opportunity presented to him after Vegas selected him in the expansion draft last June, the 26-year-old has thrived with a career year.
Schmidt posted career-highs in goals (5), assists (31) and points (36) while logging close to 23 minutes per game this season. The offensive prowess has stayed with him during the postseason, as he’s registered six points in 15 games this spring while riding his mobility and a consistent ability to put up clean zone entries and exits. He’s been looked to carry a large amount of the load defensively, too, as him and partner Brayden McNabb have matched up against their opponents’ top unit almost exclusively this postseason.
We see Fleury’s name again here, and for good reason. The 33-year-old is hunting for his fourth Stanley Cup and has put himself in prime position to do it, posting an absurd .947 save percentage, 1.68 goals against average and four shutouts, which are all career playoff bests. Fleury has saved 17.56 Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA), which is currently the second highest ever in a single postseason. He’s the odds on Conny Smythe favourite at this point and, even if Vegas can’t close the deal, could very well become the first player from a losing team to win layoff MVP since J.S. Giguere did so in 2003.
His counterpart has put up a hell of a run himself, but not before seeing some adversity and sitting in favour of Philipp Grubauer for the first two games of Washington’s opening round showdown against Columbus. Holtby came in for Game 3 against the Blue Jackets and never looked back, reeling off four straight wins to get the Capitals to the second round while recording a .927 SV% and 4.37 GSAA in 18 games. He’s looked poised, comfortable in his movement, and for the most part has eliminated the regular weak goals that have plagued him a little in the past.
History versus history
No matter how you slice it, each of these teams are staring history in the face in their own way. The Capitals, despite oodles of regular-season success, haven’t been to a Stanley Cup Final in 20 years and have never won it all. The Caps’ postseason disappointment is par for the course for Washington professional sports teams in recent memory, with the NFL’s Redskins delivering the last championship to D.C. back in 1991. The Capitals have a chance to bring just the second ever non-football major professional title to the city.
The Golden Knights, meanwhile, are certainly playing with house money, but have to be relishing the opportunity to become the first true expansion in the four major North American sports leagues to win a ‘ship in its first year of existence.
With both squads looking to grab their first Stanley Cup, something has to give here, and it’s going to be fun as hell finding out what that is.
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