- Winning on the road, massive hits, first-time cup winners, a GM who has a hand in building both teams—the x-factors that make this year's final so intriguing.
Every Stanley Cup Final has its storylines, but the 2018 edition between the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights has more than its fair share.
For the Capitals, there’s a shot at ending the team’s championship-less existence after 43 angst-filled seasons. Could the face of the franchise finally chase all the narratives surrounding his 13-year career? There’s the former Vezina-winning goalie who faltered down the stretch only to regain his form and dish out back-to-back shutouts in the biggest games of his career.
On the other end of the ice sheet, the story surrounding the Golden Knights has become one of the best in sports history. Despite not having an actual team a year ago, Vegas’s band of “Golden Misfits” came together quicker and in greater fashion than anyone could have expected. In net, there’s a three-time Stanley Cup champion that’s found a career renaissance in the desert while the offense has been buoyed by some of the NHL’s burgeoning stars.
All of that says nothing of the man who built both teams.
Here’s just a sampling of what to watch for when the Stanley Cup Final kicks off on Monday, May 28 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
THE MASKED MEN
For all the Capitals-Penguins animosity, last year was the only postseason in which Braden Holtby and Marc-Andre Fleury squared off head-to-head, but that doesn’t mean the goalie matchup in this Stanley Cup Final is any less fraught with intrigue. Both netminders have posted back-to-back shutouts this spring, with Holtby’s hot streak coming right on time to close out the Lightning in the conference finals, but the Capitals have been at their best when they’ve kept the puck from making it into their crease at all. Holtby has seen 21 fewer shots than Fleury this postseason, despite appearing in 18 games to Fleury’s 15, and Washington has allowed fewer than 25 shots on goal in six of its last eight games. If there’s a netminder fit to play heroball, it’s Fleury, who already has one iconic Stanley Cup Final save to his name. But it will be impossible to escape the narrative of the goalie matchup, even if each man took a dramatically different route to get here.
Deryk Engelland is 36, he’s never been more than a bottom-pair defender and he toiled in the ECHL for a few years. While everyone knows him as the de facto Golden Knights captain, not many know that he’s actually really good. After averaging a career-high 20:17 in the regular season, he bumped that up 22:36 in the postseason, second on the team. He’s not flashy, and he’s not going to put up big numbers. But he’ll be out there for every important faceoff, and every important moment.
This is Chandler Stephenson’s first full NHL season and he hasn’t disappointed. The 24-year-old Capitals forward scored 18 points in the regular season and he’s added seven more in the postseason. He’s a key cog on the fourth line and has shown a knack for slipping behind defenders to create scoring chances. Look for him to score a few dirty goals at big moments.
This postseason has been unique in several ways, but most notably the lack of importance of being the home team. So in this final series, will home ice work as an advantage? The road team is 42-37 this postseason, with the Capitals being a whopping 8-2 as visitors. Meanwhile, Vegas is boasting an impressive 6-1 mark at home with that one loss going to double overtime against the Sharks. The games in Vegas will likely be the most interesting of this series. We lucked out (or were deprived, you pick) of having any overtime in the third round, but this Final could easily take a few extra periods in the desert with a lucky crowd that is all-in on this Cinderella story.
And let’s not forget that the Golden Knights are also killing it on the road at 6-2, which is where they might have the advantage in this series as the Capitals are 4-5 at Capital One Arena. Perhaps the D.C. traffic on the way to the rink is not the best pregame pump-up? But the fans, who have been waiting for this moment seemingly forever, will not make it an easy environment for Vegas.
They’ve been separated for much of this postseason, but Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom have been staples in the U.S. capital since they were drafted in 2004 and 2006. Ovechkin already has the 19th-most goals in league history and will be the active leader once Jaromir Jagr officially hangs ‘em up. Backstrom, meanwhile, is one of the league’s best playmakers, ranking eighth among current NHLers with 590 assists. Both are among the top point-getters among active players but have also been criticized for the Caps’ repeated playoff failures. Now they have the chance to silence the critics once and for all.
Lord Stanley’s silver would be the perfect source of payback for the gang of “Golden Misfits” out there in Paradise, Nevada; the perfect way to prove their value to any former team that might have let them go. Vegas has plenty of Cup experience where it counts–goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is a four-time finalist, three-time Champ and eyeing up a third straight championship ring–but, elsewhere, the Golden Knights are pretty green. A Cup would certainly be welcomed by James Neal, who got to the Eastern Conference Final with Pittsburgh in 2013 and finished as a runner-up to his former Pens teammates with Nashville last season. Engelland is another veteran of that 2013 Pittsburgh team, and the d-man that was drafted in 2000 but has only been a fixture in the league since 2010 would surely love the chance to hoist the Cup for his adopted hometown.
MCPHEE’S TWO CUP TEAMS
It’s hard to look at this Cup Final without thinking about the man who literally put both teams together. George McPhee was the chief decision maker in D.C. as the Capitals GM from 1997 to 2014, winning seven division titles, finishing with 40-plus wins eight times and drafting franchise cornerstones Ovechkin, Backstrom, John Carlson and Holtby. While the latter stages of his time in Washington were marred by an inability to get out of the second round of the playoffs, it’s hard to ignore how much of an impact McPhee had on this current Cup Final-bound squad.
While building the Capitals into a perennial contender was no easy job, creating one out of leftover players and shrewd deals in under a single year is a marvel. As the first GM of the Golden Knights, some of McPhee’s best moves at the expansion draft were the easy ones (hello, Mr. Fleury), while somehow also turning the smart selection of dynamo Jonathan Marchessault from Florida into a deal that also brought in 22-goal scorer Reilly Smith and a draft pick. It’s doubtful that anyone knew William Karlsson would blossom into a 40-goal scorer, but there’s no other way to look at it: McPhee built a championship-caliber team on the fly while stocking the prospect pool. The Vegas plan was for playoffs in three and a real contender in six. Talk about underselling and over-delivering.
Does he get a Cup ring if Washington wins it all? Almost assuredly not … but maybe he should.
DISHING OUT THE HITS
Both the Golden Knights and Capitals have proven the old ‘play the man, not the puck’ adage to be true during the postseason. The Golden Knights have almost doubled their hits per game from the regular season to the playoffs, going from around 21 per game to nearly 40. Defenseman Brayden McNabb leads the team with 64 hits through 15 games, which is good for fourth in the league.
The Capitals’ rise in physicality hasn’t gone up by as wide of a margin—22 hits per game in the regular season to 31 per game in the playoffs. But Washington boasts four of the top five leaders in total hits this postseason. Tom Wilson has 70, Ovechkin and Devante Smith-Pelly have 66 each and Brooks Orpik has 63. Wilson ignited the Caps’ Game 7 victory in the Eastern Conference Final with several bursts of bodily contact. He dominated a fight with Braydon Coburn at the end of the first period, and Washington went on to outscore Tampa Bay 3-0 from that point forward. Ovechkin, who had already scored in the game, responded by leading the team with five hits as he constantly imposed his will on Tampa Bay’s players.
Ryan Reaves of the Golden Knights has only played in six playoff games but has 24 hits for an average of four hits per game. Wilson averages 4.4. If those two enforcers are forced to share the ice during the Stanley Cup Final, tempers will flare. Even if they aren’t, it should be a physically demanding series.