For the first time in 20 years the Washington Capitals will be playing in the Stanley Cup Final. The last time they managed to win three rounds, in 1998, they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings, who would win their second straight title with a loaded team. In those days, there wasn’t an NHL salary cap, so many of the bigger market franchises were able to stack their rosters up with talent by spending more money. Go back and take a look at that Red Wings roster, coached by the legendary Scotty Bowman, and you’ll see the names of many Hall of Fame players such as Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Brendan Shanahan, Nicklas Lidstrom, and Larry Murphy.
In 2018, outspending other teams by wide margins is no longer the case with the salary cap in place along with last season’s NHL expansion draft. Former Capitals General Manager George McPhee, who knew he would be getting a good player from all 30 teams, did a marvelous job of assembling a roster that is big and fast. Not many picked the Vegas Golden Knights to make the playoffs, but they bonded together after the tragedy at the country music festival last October outside Mandalay Bay, rode goalie Marc Andre-Fleury to some early wins when they were outplayed, and then found a lot of confidence along the way en route to the Pacific Division title.
This Golden Knights squad is no fluke and their accomplishments should be celebrated, because they earned it defeating the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, and Winnipeg Jets in just 15 playoff games. Coach Gerard Gallant and his staff have done a masterful job of getting each player to buy in and play a north-south style of hockey with speed and size. Heading into the season, there were no star players on this roster, other than the three time Stanley Cup Champion goaltender, and each player arrived with a hunger to be a regular player and make a mark in this league. Boy did this squad stick to the script, turning a “Land of Misfit Toys” type group into the Western Conference Champions.
They have star players now, and it starts up front with their top line of William Karlsson (43 goals), Jonathan Marchessault (27 goals), and Riley Smith. Both Karlsson and Marchessault have had career years and moved into the star category this season. Those two have 14 of the 43 goals that Vegas has scored this post season and Smith also has added two tallies to go with his 14 assists. They are a formidable top line and the Capitals have to be careful not make mistakes against them because they will burn Washington with odd man rushes using their speed. The Caps need to continue to play a north-south style and avoid offensive zone blue line cross ice passes against the whole Golden Knights squad, but especially this top line. I look for Coach Barry Trotz to try and get Nicklas Backstrom’s line, with T.J. Oshie and Jakub Vrana and the Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen blue line duo out against the Marchessault trio, which averages right around 20 minutes a game in time on ice, as much as possible in this series.
Vegas’ second line at the end of the Winnipeg series was centered by the speedy Erik Haula and flanked by former Nashville Predator James Neal, and the big and superfast Alex Tuch. That trio has combined for 13 goals this post season. This line is downright scary in terms of speed and Tuch and Neal bring a lot of grit, too. They are great on the fore check and Neal is a supremely talented offensive player that knows how to go to the net. There are times, depending on the matchups, where Tuch gets moved to the third line and David Perron, who missed four playoff games due to injury, plays on the second unit. Either way, this is a line that you better not go to sleep on when they are on the ice.
Former Capital Cody Eakin and Ryan Carpenter are mainstays on the third line and complete the top nine for Vegas. Eakin is a very fast player, but is not big, while Carpenter, at six feet one, plays with size and is strong on the boards. It will be interesting to see if Gallant puts this line against the Caps top line of Evgeny Kuznetsov, Alex Ovechkin, and Tom Wilson or he tries to match the Neal-Haula-Tuch unit against Ovi and company.
Rounding out Vegas’ forwards are Pierre Edouard-Bellemare, Tomas Nosek, Ryan Reaves, and former Red Wing, Tomas Tatar. Tatar has had pass success against Washington, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him promoted back into the lineup versus the Caps. Bellemare, a former Flyer, is a prototypical fourth line player that is strong on the puck and does a great job of killing penalties. Reaves is a big force and a protector, so the key for the Caps is to not have Wilson get engaged with the big man who scored the game winner that put Vegas into the Stanley Cup Final. Will Carrier, who has been out injured and practiced on Sunday in a non-contact jersey, could be back in later in the series to provide physical play on the fourth line, as well. The Capitals need Willy on the ice in this series and not in the penalty box.
On the back end, the Golden Knights are led by former Caps defensemen, Nate Schmidt. Schmidty is a popular guy who skates extremely well and moves the puck out of his zone quickly. He also has a strong shot and leads Vegas in average ice time in the playoffs (24:53 per contest). Number 88 is often on the ice with former Los Angeles King Brayden McNabb (average of 22:02 per game in the playoffs). Their second defensive pair is the physical former Penguin and Flame, Deryk Engelland, and Shea Theodore. Engelland fits the Brooks Orpik mold for Vegas in that he’s physical and is a penalty killing specialist. The blue line is strong for the Western Conference Champions as evidenced by a third duo of Colin Miller and Luca Sbisa. Sbisa is a very good puck mover, while the six foot one Miller brings size and a big shot on the power play.
In net, the Capitals will try to defeat Fleury for the first time in the post season. Number 29 has given up lots of tallies to the Caps in the past, but when the chips are on the line, he’s 2-0 in game sevens allowing only two goals. He’s the single biggest reason that the 2016-17 Presidents’ Trophy Winning Washington Capitals squad lost to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Pens in round two. Fleury has been on fire in goal as Vegas has rolled through these playoffs and he clearly has taken his performance to a new level under former Capitals goalie coach, Dave Prior.
On special teams, the Golden Knights are a super penalty killing team (82.5% in the post season) and can burn you with shorthanded goals, if you aren’t careful. Karlsson is especially dangerous there. On the power play (17.6%) they rely a lot on shots from the top of the point with net presence. Both Schmidt and Miller have cannons and guys like Neal and Smith are strong at tipping pucks or potting rebounds. You also have to really watch Marchessault and Karlsson because they can pass the puck and have been successful finding that cross box seam play that has hurt the Capitals this postseason. Washington’s penalty killing crew is only at 75.4% in this playoff run, so the Caps must be better there to have a chance to win this series.
Vegas comes into this series as the favorites given their success that has led to supreme confidence, home ice advantage (only lost once at T-Mobile Arena this spring), and the fact that they are healthier and more rested than the Caps, who have played four more games. As has been the case in the past two Capitals series, having the lead by the game’s midway point will be crucial to the winner of each contest as both teams have very good goalies and a strong defensive posture that makes coming back from a deficit very difficult.
The outcome could go either way and one thing is for sure, one of these franchises is going to win their first Stanley Cup!