Wow. We hockey fans were treated to some truly epic games last round, as the Vegas Golden Knights grounded the Jets, while the Capitals went through a roller coaster of emotions on their way to halting the Lightning and their juggernaut squad. With the Finals beginning tonight, (8:00 PM Eastern time) in Las Vegas (Still so weird to say), will it be the upstart Knights or long waiting Caps who come out on top of what has been an absolutely insane post-season?
How the Capitals Will Win:
For the Capitals to earn their first ever Stanley Cup, they must stick to what made them victorious against the Lightning. That means relying on their superstars, superb goaltending, and probably most importantly, playing their patented physical game while staying out of the box.
The Caps have been able to rely on their studs all playoffs long, but have also benefitted from some offense from unexpected sources. Ovi and Kuznetsov are mesmerizing out there, scoring seemingly at will and Tom Wilson’s presence gives them plenty of room to do their thing. It was Wilson’s crushing hit on Kunitz in the first minute of Game 7 against Tampa that forced the turnover and led to the Caps first goal. The Caps second line has also been firing on all cylinders, with Oshie and Backstrom creating opportunities on every shift. Between these two star-studded lines, Vegas will be attacked from all angles. Throw in contributions from Eller, Burakovsky, Smith-Pelly, Carlson, and Orlov, and the Caps can get goals from just about anybody.
The big question for the Caps will be if they can keep the puck out of their own net. Braden Holtby has not allowing a goal since Game 5 versus the Lightning. He has remained calm during broken plays, relied on his positioning to make the key saves, and above all else, gotten some great puck luck. In Game 7, it felt like the Lightning couldn’t buy a bounce. All the credit to Holtby though. After sitting on the bench to start these Playoffs, he has regained his starting job and been a key reason for the Capitals’ success.
Lastly, the Caps will need to stay out of the box. Two potential culprits to look out for are Lars Eller and Tom Wilson. Wilson has never been a stranger to crossing the line between legal physicality and downright dirty play. If he manages to play smart, he can be a real contributor in the Cup Finals. But if he spends too much time getting to know the penalty box operators, and the Caps find themselves constantly backed up in their own zone by the high-energy Knights, he could be a major player in their downfall. Lars Eller on the other hand, is prone to taking the kind of penalties that make fans want to throw their beer at the screen. No man gets his stick stuck in an opposing player’s equipment with the refs watching more than Eller. Despite his penchant for penalties, Eller has made a real impact in these Playoffs, particularly when filling in for an injured Backstrom. If he maintains his high-level play next round and can stay out of the box, the Caps may bring Lord Stanley to D.C for the first time in franchise history.
How the Golden Knights Will Win:
True to their location, the Golden Knights play a style befitting the Wild Wild West. This squad is not afraid to take chances at both ends of the ice and it has served them well all season. Defensemen are not afraid to pinch and forwards are not afraid take those extra chances in the offensive zone. There is no better reason for this confidence than goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who has been about as reliable as they come this post-season. All of this has combined to create a team that rolls four lines every night and leaves it all out on the ice, regardless of the outcome. It’s hard to believe this is the same team that most pegged to finish in the basement of the Pacific division this season. These “Golden Misfits,” as Ryan Reaves calls them, just feel destined for something special.
If Vegas wins the Cup (and maybe even if they lose…Giguere anyone?), Fleury will be the obvious choice to win the Conn Smythe Trophy, awarded to the Playoff MVP. He is by far the biggest reason for this expansion team’s unimaginable cup run. Fleury has been magnificent, playing probably the best hockey of his professional career. He has stolen games in each series, against the Sharks, Kings, and Jets. It will be interesting to see how the Capitals attack Fleury, seeing as they have years of first-hand experience against him while Fleury was with the Penguins.
In trying to keep up with the Caps, the Golden Knights will be relying on their top line of Smith, Karlsson, and Marchessault, a strategy that has served them well in these playoffs so far. Further, big game James Neal and his past cup experience will no doubt be something the Knights count on in this series. Two key players to keep an eye on this series for Vegas are Ryan Reaves and Nate Schmidt. Reaves is an experienced grinder and self proclaimed toughest guy in the league. Although he did not see action until Game 6 of the Sharks series, he has since made his presence known, dishing out jarring hits and even scoring the Conference Finals winning goal. The Knights will need him to act as a spark plug to get them going, and to counteract the Caps’ Tom Wilson. Further Schmidt, who the Caps left unprotected last season, has emerged as the top defenseman on the Golden Knights, not to mention one of the best defenseman throughout these playoffs, will surely be looking for some revenge against the team that let him walk. Expect him to take his game to another level, making the Caps feel miserable for letting him go.
Who Will Win:
In a series that SNL’s Stefon would say “Has Everything,” the real winner is the fans as we have the pleasure of capping off a great post-season with an exciting newcomer vs. grizzled vet storyline. The series will be back and forth from the opening face-off, but when the dust clears and everything is said and done, Washington will emerge victorious. In six games, Ovi will silence his doubters (at least until the Fall), capturing not only the Stanley Cup, but the Conn Smythe Trophy. The victory will be long overdue. And, let’s be honest. Vegas can wait.
Photo courtesy: CBC.ca