When the 2017-2018 NHL regular season started, how many analysts, coaches, fans, and so called “experts” would have predicted this year’s two Stanley Cup Finals representatives?
The sound of crickets should be echoing right about now cause surely no one in their right mind would have guessed that the Stanley Cup Finals would include an expansion team vs a team that has notoriously underachieved each and every post-season for the last decade.
However, that is what this year’s finals have produced with the intriguing matchup of the Vegas Golden Knights vs the Washington Capitals. This is arguably one of the most interesting Stanley Cup Finals of not just recent memory, but of all time. The Vegas Golden Knights squad has produced the most historic run by any expansion team of any of the four major North American sports leagues (MLB, NBA, NFL, and NHL). The Golden Knights are the first expansion team in the NHL since the 1968 St. Louis Blues to reach the final. No other team in any of the previously mentioned North American sports leagues have come close to the success Vegas has produced this season. With a roster filled with many forgotten or overlooked players which franchises were unwilling to protect in the 2017 expansion draft, Vegas has taken on the underdog persona the entire season. Despite being doubted for the majority of the season, Vegas looks to make history and become the first NHL team to win the Stanley Cup in its inaugural season.
Looking at the other side of the bracket, one could say it was about time the Washington Capitals made it to the Stanley Cup Finals. With one of the most coveted scorers in the 2000s, Alexander Ovechkin, the Capitals finally matched post-season success with their regular season success. The Capitals have taken home the President’s Trophy (the team with the NHL’s best regular season record) three times during Ovechkin’s stellar career, but the regular season success had never culminated to a Stanley Cup appearance until this year. Maybe the consistent early round exits in recent memory in the playoffs were the reason many outside of D.C. doubted the Capitals this year? Whatever the reason may be, the Capitals have, temporarily, put their demons to rest and finally become the eastern conference representative in the finals.
How did these improbable teams make it this far?
Vegas Golden Knights:
Round 1: A blazing 4-0 sweep of the wildcard Los Angeles Kings.
Conference Semi-Finals: A 4-2 victory against a red-hot San Jose Sharks squad.
Conference Finals: Four straight victories to defeat the Winnipeg Jets 4-1 who were coming off a series victory against the President’s Trophy winning Nashville Predators.
An astounding 12-3 record in the post-season no one could have predicted despite Vegas claiming the Pacific Division crown in the regular season. Vegas has been led by the phenomenal play of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury who has posted four shutouts in 15 games this post-season, and a whopping save percentage of .947. Fleury, the former Pittsburgh Penguins goalie, has been a thorn in the Capitals side before in the post-season and he is putting on a career elevating performance heading into the Stanley Cup Finals.
On the offensive end, the Golden Knights have been led by the dynamic trio of Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, and William Karlsson who make up the first line. The three have been outstanding this post-season combining for 16 goals and 47 points. How’s that for three players who were unwilling to be protected by their former teams in the expansion draft? Vegas’ first line has been nicely complimented by wingers James Neal and Alex Tuch, and defensemen Nate Schmidt (the former Capital) and Shea Theodore.
Round 1: Despite losing the first two games at home, the Capitals reeled off four straight victories to beat the Columbus Blue Jackets 4-2.
Conference Semi-Finals: The Capitals finally get over two monumental humps. The first hump was getting past the conference semi-finals for the first time with Ovechkin being on the roster. The second hump being the first post-season series victory against the Sidney Crosby led Pittsburgh Penguins, who had been a post-season thorn for the Capitals in years past. The Capitals defeated the Penguins 4-2.
Conference Finals: The Capitals became road warriors defeating arch rival Tampa Bay Lightning, who claimed the best regular season record in the eastern conference, 4-3.
The Capitals defied the odds and nay-sayers every round to finally get back to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in 20 years. Once again, Alexander Ovechkin is the force that powers the Capitals and this post-season has been no different. Ovechkin and his first line partner Evgeny Kuznetsov have powered the Capitals scoring this post-season. Ovechkin is 2nd overall with 12 goals this post-season and Kuznetsov has tallied the most points of any individual this post-season with 24. Goalie Braden Holtby has stepped up big time for the Capitals, especially in the conference finals against the Lightning where Holtby posted two consecutive shut-outs in game 6 & 7 to clinch the conference championship.
The Golden Knights and Capitals are connected in more ways than just defying doubters to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. Golden Knights general manager George McPhee was the Washington Capitals general manager for nearly 20 years and was essentially the person who built the Capitals roster. He drafted many players on the Capitals current roster, including stars Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, who are now finally playing for a Stanley Cup. Unfortunately, McPhee was never able to take the franchise to its 2nd Stanley Cup Finals appearance before departing the franchise in 2014 despite the aforementioned regular season success. McPhee even tapped into the some of the foundation he laid in Washington when constructing the Vegas roster by acquiring defenseman Nate Schmidt in the expansion draft. Whichever team is raising the Stanley Cup at the end of the series, the work and maneuvering of George McPhee will be remembered as he will be the one who laid the foundation of the franchise.
Stanley Cup Finals Prediction
Both the Golden Knights and the Capitals come into the Stanley Cup Final playing fantastic hockey, and they have each hit their stride at the right time. This looks to be one of the most oddball, yet entertaining Stanley Cup Finals in recent memory. This final is filled with intriguing storylines, hungry fan bases, underdog stories, and star players. How will this surely fun-filled series pan out?
Both goalies’ hot streaks will surely be challenged by the first lines of each opposing team. The Golden Knights’ three-headed monster of Marchessault, Smith, and Karlsson will power the scoring and play-making of the Golden Knights. The Capitals’ duo of Ovechkin and Kuznetsov look to break Fleury’s historic post-season performance. Expect a strong performance from Nicklas Backstrom as well who has been fighting an injury throughout the post-season. Despite Fleury having the performance of a lifetime this post-season thus far, and another strong performance is to be expected in the Stanley Cup Finals, Ovechkin & company will not be denied against Fleury this time. The depth of the Capitals beyond the first line will complement the first line just enough to counter the Golden Knights rising trio. The Capitals will finally put all their demons to rest and put an end to the Golden Knights’ magical season by hoisting the Stanley Cup in the Nevada desert.
Prediction: Capitals in 7