Before I begin to examine this year’s edition of the Stanley Cup Finals, I will admit my guilt and eat crow. I, like most members of the hockey media, was wrong. Extremely wrong, in fact.
In our preview of the first round matchups last month, I picked both the eventual Eastern Conference champion Washington Capitals and Western Conference champion Vegas Golden Knights – still feels strange to type that – to lose to the Columbus Blue Jackets and Los Angeles Kings, respectively, in seven games.
Then again, it’s not as if anyone saw this matchup coming. Arguably, it’s the most surprising Finals matchup since the Los Angeles Kings defeated the New Jersey Devils in six games back in 2012. It’s even more shocking given the fact that Vegas is the first expansion team to play for the Cup in 50 years and that the Caps don’t boast the same kind of depth in talent as past rosters did.
Regardless of how eye-opening this matchup is, it should still be quite entertaining. Here’s the low-down on each team going into Game One tonight:
Washington Capitals (49-26-7, first in Metro Division)
It’s funny – recently, when a perennial power consistently underachieves, as soon as their window for contention appears to close everyone jumps off the bandwagon. Then, free of expectations, that team makes a surprise run to the Finals.
Look no further than the San Jose Sharks two years ago and the Pittsburgh Penguins in each of the past two seasons. After they blew a 3-0 lead against the Kings and missing the playoffs a year later, a Sharks team that had been a Cup contender for 10 years was considered dead by most pundits. Then they finally reached the promised land.
Meanwhile, the Penguins, who some began to question if they could ever win another title with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, hired the right coach, brought in a new supporting cast and became the league’s first back-to-back champion in nearly 20 years.
The Caps are in a similar situation. Many gave up on them after last year’s seemingly umpteenth try to get past the Penguins, then entered this postseason down two games to none to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Then coach Barry Trotz re-inserted goaltender Braden Holtby into the starting lineup and the team has been hot ever since – coming back against Columbus, vanquishing the hated rival Pens and knocking off perhaps the East’s best team in Tampa Bay.
Led by the usual suspects – Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie and John Carlson, the Capitals have rarely struggled for offense and still don’t. Carlson, Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen are continuing to hold down the fort on defense along with the rising Dimitry Orlov and newcomers Christian Djoos and Michael Kempny. Holtby has also rebounded from a subpar regular season, and is entering the Finals having shut out the Lightning in back-to-back games.
Vegas Golden Knights (51-24-7, first in Pacific Division)
The Golden Knights have surprised everyone with the strongest debut season of any team in major professional sports. Led by Marc-Andre Fleury, William Karlsson, Jon Marchessault, David Perron and Reilly Smith, they’ve been a team that relies on speed and a strong forechecking game. Coach Gerard Gallant is the runaway favorite for the Jack Adams trophy as coach of the year.
Fleury is the favorite to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. His play in net has been reminiscent of dominant performances from the past like Jean-Sebastian Giguere in 2003 and Jonathan Quick in 2012, and his numbers – a .947 save percentage and a 1.68 goals-against average – have been sublime.
The Golden Knights’ top line of Karlsson, Marchessault and Smith has been dynamic. All arrived via the expansion draft and were looking to prove that their former teams made mistakes giving up on them. A 40-goal season from Karlsson and 75 and 60-point seasons from Marchessault and Smith have confirmed that the Blue Jackets and Florida Panthers have each made gigantic blunders letting them walk. Solid play from veterans like Perron, Erik Haula and James Neal have supplemented them.
Their defense corps, led by Braden McNabb, Colin Miller, Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore and Deryk Engelland, has quietly allowed just 27 goals in 15 playoff games against the Kings, Sharks and Winnipeg Jets.
Prediction – Capitals in seven. With neither of these teams being heavy favorites, this series will likely go down to the wire, and assuming the Lightning and Penguins didn’t take too much gas out of the Caps’ tank, Ovechkin will emerge with his long-sought after Stanley Cup ring.