Stanley Cup Final
Capitals in 6
The unbelievable success of the expansion Vegas Golden Knights has been the story all year in the NHL in 2018. At 51-24-7, the Golden Knights had the greatest season ever for an expansion team, winning the Pacific Divison. They kept in going in the playoffs sweeping the Kings, beating the Sharks in six and taking five games to shootdown the Jets in the Western Conference Finals. Once upon a time the Washington Capitals were 8-67-5 in their first year, during the 1974/75 season. It is notable as the worst season in the history of the NHL, which included 37 straight road losses and an overall record of 1-39 on the road. The Golden Knights have had the ultimate beginners luck, while fans of the Capitals have suffered four decades of pain, which has seen them blow 3-1 leads in the playoffs several times. The Capitals have won the President’s Trophy as the best team in the NHL three times but did not make the Stanley Cup Final in any of those seasons. Over the last decade they had been one of the best teams in the regular season but this will be their first Final appearance since 1998 as they seek their first Stanley Cup Championship.
After winning the President’s Trophy in 2016 and 2017, the Washington Capitals due to Salary Cap restrictions had to let go of some key pieces including Marcus Johansson. The regular season saw the Capitals once again win the Metropolitan Division, but it was not without its struggle as they were only the third overall team in the Eastern Conference with a record of 49-26-7. In the postseason they have shown a type of resilience that has never been demonstrated in the past by the Capitals. The postseason started poorly for Washington as they lost the first two games in the first round to the Blue Jackets in overtime, blowing leads in each game. The managed to comeback to win the next to in Columbus and won the series in six games. Against the Penguins who have long been their nemesis, winning nine of ten previous postseason match ups, the Capitals won in six games, staging a great third-period comeback to win Game 5, when the series was tied and winning Game 6 in overtime. After winning the first two games on the road in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Lightning, the Capitals again faced dire straits losing three straight, but facing elimination Braden Holtby who had an uneven season had his first two shutouts of the year in Game 6 and Game 7 to bring the Capitals to hockey’s ultimate stage.
Vegas has been led to the Stanley Cup Final by one man, Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury who was apart of the Penguins Stanley Cup championship in the last two seasons, though he watched the Finals on the bench after losing his job to Matt Murray. Fleury has been the key to the Golden Knights success from the start, as he was the first pick in the expansion draft, as Pittsburgh was allowed to protect just one goalie and they chose Murray who was younger and took over at the start of the 2016 playoff run. This postseason has been Fleury’s time to shine, as he started with a 1-0 shutout win over the Kings in the first postseason game ever played in Las Vegas. The Knights goalie has had four shutouts in the postseason, with a 1.68 GAA and a .947 save percentage. Marc-Andre Fleury has been so good, he could already have won the Conn Smythe Award as Playoff MVP, even if the Knights lose in the Stanley Cup Final. The Golden Knights offense has been led by Jonathan Marchessault who has a team-high 18 points, with a team-leading eight goals, while Reilly Smith leads the way with 14 assists. William Karlsson also has had a strong postseason with six goals and seven assists, while Alex Tuch was big in the Western Conference Finals and has also had six postseason goals.
The Capitals got a big clutch performance from Braden Holtby, who had two shutout wins to get the Capitals past the Lightning in the Eastern Conference Finals. Overall Holtby has had a solid postseason with a 2.04 GAA, with a .924 save percentage. Offense though is where the Capitals drive their success, with Evgeny Kuznetsov leading the way with 24 points, with 11 goals highlighted by his overtime game-winner in Game 6 against the Penguins that helped get the big monkey off the back of Alex Ovechkin who had never beaten his rival Sidney Crosby in the postseason. Ovechkin is Washington’s leading goal scorer with 12 in the playoffs as he has 22 points overall. Defenseman John Carlson has been key at jump-starting the offense with 13 playoff assists, while Nicklas Backstrom has 16 points in the postseason, despite missing four games and playing through pain. The Capitals secret weapon has been T.J. Oshie who has had seven goals and could be the big x-factor in a close battle.
The Capitals have historical had trouble beating Marc-Andre Fleury as he has been on the Penguins their infamous postseason tormentors. However, every historic hurdle that has come up this year, the Capitals have overcome. Both teams have plenty of rest since wrapping up the conference finals, with the Capitals having played last on Wednesday, while the Knights have had eight days off. Those eight days could be hurtful as they will likely be rusty especially in the early stages of Game 1. I am going to leave the ice and head to the NFL for this year’s prediction. Another team with a great player who failed time and time again in the playoffs named Peyton Manning came into the 2006 playoffs after a regular season that failed to live up to their previous best season in 2005. They were not expected to win that year, but won a road playoff game, had a big comeback against Tom Brady and made the Super Bowl. This year’s Capitals journey and the monkey coming off Alex Ovechkin’s back remind me of that Colts team which won Super Bowl XLI. This is where Ovechkin will shine, and when the Capitals long-suffering fans will finally get to say this was our year as they parade the Stanley Cup after winning in six games.