- Sixteen teams entered, two are left standing. Here's what we're expecting in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.
It’s here, it’s finally here! It’s Stanley Cup Final time!
After weeks of staying up late to watch our favorite (or not-so-favorite) teams slog their way through best-of-seven series, whittling themselves from 16 to two, we’re left with the Vegas Golden Knights and Washington Capitals.
While we’ll have to wait to have some of our biggest questions answered, we tried our hands at figuring out some of the pressing and ... offbeat queries of the final round of the 2018 NHL playoffs.
1. Who should win the Conn Smythe at this point?
JEREMY FUCHS: You can make an argument for Evgeny Kuznetsov, and if the Caps win, it’ll likely be Alex Ovechkin. But the best pure player has been Marc-Andre Fleury. Let’s remember: He was benched in the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, only to see his replacement lift the Cup both times. And then he was jettisoned to an expansion team. He’s let up four goals three times (the only three Vegas losses in the postseason) and three goals just twice. He’s had three shutouts. He’s been dominant, and playing better than any other point in his career.
MICHAEL BLINN: Even if Vegas loses at this point, it pretty much has to be Fleury, right? According to InGoal Media’s Greg Balloch, he’s saved an extra 17 goals against for the Golden Knights in the postseason. That’s beyond ridiculous. Sure, gaudy offensive numbers for Ovechkin and Kuznetsov will steal some votes, but Fleury has stolen games.
KRISTEN NELSON: There is no reason it shouldn’t be Fleury. The guy has been the backbone for Vegas every single game and has made it this easy for the team to get to the final. If the Capitals win, the choice will certainly be Ovechkin, who has grown into the leader Washington has needed. But as of now, one shall not resist the infectious smile of a show-stopping Flower.
TIM HACKETT: If Vegas wins outright or loses in a tight series, this award is Flower’s to lose. Even if the Golden Knights come up short, a Cup loser has won playoff MVP five times, but four of those five guys were goalies. Fleury has eerily similar numbers to the last Cup-loser-but-Smythe-winner, Anaheim’s Jean-Sebastien Giguere:
Giguere in 2003: 21 GP, 15 wins, 1.62 GAA, .945 SV%
Fleury in 2018: 15 GP, 12 wins, 1.68 GAA, .947 SV%
ERIC SINGLE: With a nod to Fleury’s sterling start, this award belongs to Ovechkin, both for his numerous timely goals—most recently the tone-setting one-timer that proved to be the Game 7 winner in Tampa Bay—and navigating the first three rounds under more pressure than anyone else on either roster. He has corrected every dip in the Capitals’ energy and proven to be a fitting leader for this franchise’s long-awaited run.
TYLER HORKA: I said it after the second round and I’ll say it again: Marc-Andre Fleury. Vegas doesn’t even average three goals per game (2.87) and yet the Golden Knights still made it to the Stanley Cup Final. Fleury’s 1.68 goals against average and .947 save percentage are big reasons why. Fleury has not only been the best player on his own team, but he has also been the best player in the playoffs, too.
2. The internet has revealed some pretty strong feelings about a potential first-year expansion team champion. How do you feel about Vegas making the Cup Final?
FUCHS: It’s the coolest thing ever. The odds of it happening are so slim. General manager George McPhee did a masterful job, as did coach Gerard Gallant. What it also shows is how deep the NHL is in terms of talent. Vegas took unwanted players and turned them into a Stanley Cup team. The NHL added an extra team with no diminishing returns in quality. That’s how good the pool of hockey players is right now.
BLINN: You couldn’t script it any better. Who cares if Vegas fans have yet to go through any rough patches? A newly rabid fanbase gets to grow that much faster and actually enjoy things. Hey, maybe there’s something for everyone to learn from this whole ordeal, from front offices to players to fans. Sit back and enjoy the show.
NELSON: I love it. Why waste time to add a successful team to the league with years of struggle and constant questioning of whether or not this expansion was a good idea? There is no better way to prove how great this sport is than bringing in new fans and giving them a big reason to celebrate. The NHL isn’t known for its showcasing of personality, but Vegas is making up for that in big ways this season.
HACKETT: I’m really happy for all the guys on the Vegas roster, guys who, for one reason or another, were deemed not worth keeping on their previous rosters. I’m happy for McPhee and Co. who have assembled a roster with four good lines, three good pairings, and a scalding goaltender. I’m really happy for Gallant, who gets to strut his stuff after he was run out of Florida for no real reason and left to literally fend for himself in scenic Raleigh, N.C. I’m not happy for us hockey writers, the “experts,” who have to explain how exactly this team has done the unthinkable. I’m not happy for any current or future NHL GMs—they now have to do their jobs with the specter of this immediate success hanging over their heads.
SINGLE: It pains me to say that I fall on the more negative side of this debate. Making the final on its own is fine, but if an expansion team wins the Stanley Cup in year one, I can’t see how that won’t irreversibly alter the way fans follow rebuilds and roster construction news in the offseason. Thirty franchises had years worth of a head start on the Golden Knights, and their patchwork roster that was built on compromises and risky assumptions of continued production won the whole thing anyway? I would be rooting for my own team to completely overhaul its roster every offseason and wait for the jackpot to hit the way it did in Vegas.
HORKA: To everyone blabbering about how an expansion team shouldn’t make it to the Stanley Cup Final in its first year of existence and how it’s so “annoying” that Vegas has done so: Stop it. The Golden Knights didn’t stand a chance before the expansion draft, had no shot of winning their season opener in Dallas and definitely wouldn’t wind up making the playoffs. They proved all of those predictions wrong, and then some—and they deserve every bit of praise for it.
3. Ryan Reaves scored the series clincher for the Golden Knights. Who is your unlikely goal scorer pick in the Cup Final?
FUCHS: Alex Tuch. He quietly has six goals. He’s a big body with speed, the type of player that’s tough to stop in the postseason.
BLINN: For two reasons, please let it be Jay Beagle. First, the guy deserves it. Secondly, I love me a good Jay Beagle pun.
NELSON: Looking at you, Brooks Orpik. He will power the puck behind his former netminder with his unflinching, bone-chilling stare.
HACKETT: A Cup-clinching win would be a heck of a time for Pierre-Edouard Bellemare to score the first goal of his postseason career. It’ll come after Vegas withstands a lengthy Capitals power play (Bellemare leads Vegas in shorthanded time on ice) and he finds himself on a breakaway.
SINGLE: Jakub Vrana has the lowest shooting percentage of any regular Capitals forward this postseason, but he can be a dynamic scoring chance creator with the puck on his stick. His overall effort in the offensive end should have led to more than two goals by this point.
HORKA: Orpik. He’s only scored in the postseason two times in 144 games, so the odds aren’t great. They’re terrible, in fact. But at 37 years old, the veteran defenseman has managed to still play more than 17 minutes per game. He has three assists this postseason and boasts the highest plus/minus (15) on the Washington roster. With a steady diet of ice time and a clear knack of being on the ice for Capitals goals, I’d say it’s a fitting time to see an Orpik blast from the point find its way past Fleury.
4. What did Game 7 teach you about the Capitals?
FUCHS: That whatever curse or hex or inability to advance in the postseason is over. You don’t go into a Game 7 on the road and score 1:02 in. The inability of Ovechkin to advance far in any sort of tournament—Olympics, playoffs, etc—is over. This moment won’t be too big for him.
BLINN: It’s easy enough to point out how this Capitals team is different than in seasons past just by looking at the roster. But there’s a different feeling, a whole new emotion around it this time. They’re having fun, not sweating the small stuff and not letting their captain shoulder all the blame by stepping up in key moments.
NELSON: This isn’t the Washington we’ve known in the past. Of course they’ve proved that for a couple of rounds now, but it was a little difficult for me to buy into them after the way they started this postseason (remember Philipp Grubauer? Yeah, me neither). Barry Trotz has a lot of options to play around with his lines if things aren’t working out. Tom Wilson starts acting up again? Well Vrana fills in up top nicely. If momentum slips away from Washington, it finally has the resources to fix any issue and that will keep the Caps in contention all throughout the final.
HACKETT: That game taught me the Caps can defend. I watched beat-em-with-offense-and-only-offense Washington teams of the turn-of-the-decade, the run-and-gun beginning of the Bruce Boudreau-era teams where offense from the defense was imperative and the defense was optional. Those teams made Mike Green and Alex Semin stars and created a goaltending carousel that has only slowed after the arrival of Braden Holtby. Those teams were always at the top of the league in scoring and at the middle in preventing goals. Times have changed: last season they were top three in offense and defense, and this season they have a defensive corps that can usually make plays in both ends—one that shut down the league’s best offense for almost three straight games last round.
SINGLE: Nothing I didn’t know after Game 6. Ovechkin’s goal 62 seconds in totally changed the complexion of that game and spared Washington from almost all of the pulse-pounding tension that comes with protecting a lead in the playoffs. It was just so sudden, so deflating for the Lightning, and such a boost to the Caps’ confidence. The work they did to overcome the adversity of a flat performance in Game 5 may be a more valuable indicator of their chances against Vegas.
HORKA: The Caps are for real. This isn’t the same team that won the Presidents’ Trophy in back-to-back seasons then bowed out in the second round both times. This is a team that is well coached and finally able to live up to the pressure of a demanding playoff series. Facing elimination at home, the Capitals responded with a dominant display in Game 6. Two nights later, Washington looked even better in its 4-0 win in Tampa Bay. The Caps of old crumpled. These Caps rise to the occasion.
5. What will be your nervous-eating food during SCF?
FUCHS: Skittles. Feel free to send some my way.
BLINN: I'm learning to make guacamole, and I'm guessing the avocado smashing will be helpful.
NELSON: They don’t call me Lady Spud for nothing. Give me fistfuls of mashed potatoes.
HACKETT: I plan to make full use of this bag of Smarties I bought last weekend—hopefully that will make my thoroughly mediocre playoff predictions better in the future (the Ducks in the Final? What was I thinking? Though I did predict Andre Burakovsky showing up in Game 7...)
SINGLE: I make a mean (and healthy!) bean dip with diced tomatoes, onions, green pepper and an Italian dressing base, and it gets saltier the more tortilla chips you dip into the main bowl, which makes it perfect for multiple-overtime marathons.
HORKA: As a proud Texan, chips and salsa. Lots and lots of both.