Author: Joel Kirshner (McCormick ’19)
These NHL playoffs have had no shortage of story lines, the most compelling of which now persist into the Stanley Cup Finals. In the Alex Ovechkin era, the Washington Capitals have suffered through a decade of playoff woes, each year alternating between dominance in the regular season and disappointment come the month of May. Now, in their first Stanley Cup since 1998, they face the least likely of opponents – the self-proclaimed “Golden Misfits” of Las Vegas. One franchise will prevail with their first ever Stanley Cup championship, in what is sure to be one of the most entertaining finals matchups in recent memory.
The Golden Knights unprecedented inaugural playoff run has been unorthodox, to say the least. In the Western Conference Finals, the Winnipeg Jets dominated the Golden Knights in possession and scoring chance statistics, which typically serve as strong predictors for victory. In the five game series, the Jets accounted for 60% of all high danger scoring chances. When considering all three series so far, the Golden Knights have fewer shot attempts and fewer high danger chances than their opponents. Yet, the Golden Knights lead the playoffs in average goal differential, outscoring their opponents by 1.07 goals per game.
These trends point to one key factor that has carried them through three rounds with an astounding 12-3 record: goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has been unbeatable. Fleury’s .947 save percentage and 1.68 goals against average place him in elite company among the greatest playoff performances of all time. Goaltenders have won the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP 16 times. Not one of those 16 beat Fleury’s save percentage to date. Without belittling the efforts of the coaching staff and the rag-tag group of offensive contributors, Fleury brought the Golden Knights to this point, and Fleury will need to carry them through their final challenge.
The Capitals have trod a much more traditional path to this point. They lead the playoffs in goals scored… by a lot. They have out possessed their opponents and posted more scoring chances, and have themselves benefited from strong goaltending in Braden Holtby, who did not allow a goal in the last seven periods of the Eastern Conference finals. Their star forwards have performed as expected, as Evgeny Kuznetzov and Alex Ovechkin sit at first and second in playoff points, respectively. Even players who struggled in the regular season have stepped into key roles – veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik, for example, leads the playoffs in plus/minus at +15, having posted a -9 through the regular season.
Keys to Victory
- Flower Power. This one is pretty straightforward. If Fleury can keep pace with his performance through the first three rounds, the Golden Knights will win the Stanley Cup, and Fleury will take the Conn Smythe.
- Stay out of the box. Working at 28.8%, the Capitals power play is deadly. There may not be a more intimidating sight for an NHL goalie than watching Alexander Ovechkin wind up for a one-timer at his post atop the left circle. The Golden Knights need to play disciplined and limit those opportunities.
- Step up at home. The Capitals have made it this far by winning on the road (4-5 home, 8-2 away). That peculiarity will not hold up against the Golden Knights, who have lost exactly one home game in these playoffs. The Capitals will need to be much better at home in this series.
- The Great Eight. Alexander Ovechkin is the indisputable best goal scorer of the last decade. He oozed emotion following game 7 against the Lightning, having finally earned a spot on hockey’s biggest stage. Like Fleury for the Golden Knights, Ovechkin has the power to carry his team.
Prediction – Golden Knights in 7
This is going to be an incredible series. The Capitals will battle valiantly, but Marc-Andre Fleury will deliver a game-seven performance reminiscent of the shutout that ended the Capitals 2017 run. The Golden Knights will put an exclamation point on the most incredible inaugural season in sports history and bring Lord Stanley’s Cup home to Las Vegas.