It’s an improbable matchup between two teams that have never won a Stanley Cup, which should make this series a memorable one.
The Golden Knights defeated the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and Winnipeg Jets en route to their first Stanley Cup appearance in franchise history, while the Capitals took care of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning to advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 20 years. Both teams are 3-0 in elimination games, and both teams have closed out all three series on the road; this is the first time in NHL history that two teams have advanced to the Stanley Cup Final in that fashion.
Though Vegas won both regular-season games against Washington, the Stanley Cup Final is a totally different ballgame. These are two completely different teams that have experienced months of grueling competition to become the last two standing. It’s a tough series to predict, but here’s what to watch for in tonight’s Game 1 tilt.
Both the Knights and Capitals have scored plenty of goals in the early stages of periods throughout the postseason. For example, the Knights scored the first playoff goal in franchise history when Shea Theodore put one behind Jonathan Quick 3:23 into the first period of Game 1 against Los Angeles. More recently, Jonathan Marchessault scored just 35 seconds into Game 3 against Winnipeg.
The Capitals scored big goals against Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay early in games as well. Evgeny Kuznetsov scored 17 seconds into Game 1 of the second round, and Alex Ovechkin scored the game-winning goal in Game 7 against Tampa Bay just 1:02 into the contest.
Both teams are also capable of scoring multiple goals in quick succession. Vegas scored two goals in 21 seconds in Game 3 against Los Angeles, three goals in 1:31 in Game 1 against San Jose and two goals in 1:17 in Game 3 against the Sharks. Washington scored two goals in 29 seconds in Game 1 against Columbus, two goals in 33 seconds in Game 5 against Pittsburgh and two goals in 59 seconds in Game 2 against the Lightning.
Plus, both Vegas and Washington have been able to fight back quickly after giving up a goal, though this has been much more true of the Golden Knights. In fact, Vegas did it at least four times against Winnipeg. Brayden McNabb scored just 35 seconds after Joel Armia gave the Jets a 3-0 lead in Game 1, Marchessault scored 88 seconds after Kyle Connor got the Jets on the board in Game 2, James Neal scored 12 seconds after Jets forward Mark Scheifele tied the game in the second period of Game 3 and Tomas Nosek scored 43 seconds after Winnipeg scored a power-play goal in Game 4.
Though each series is different, every player on both sides needs to be aware of the quick-strike capabilities of these offenses, especially since both teams play a fast game and roll four lines.
Scoring the first goal
It’s almost always an advantage to score first, and both the Knights and Capitals are effective when playing with a lead. That’s why lighting the lamp first could play a key role in this series. The Knights have scored first in 11 out of 15 playoff games, and the Capitals have netted the first goal in 14 out of 19 games. Vegas is 10-1 when scoring first and 2-2 when trailing 1-0; Washington is 10-4 when scoring first and 2-3 when falling behind.
If you take Washington’s first-round series against Columbus out of the equation, the Capitals are 7-2 when scoring first and 1-3 when surrendering the first goal. Washington started off its playoff run with back-to-back losses on home ice against the Blue Jackets despite scoring the first goal in each game. Since then, the team has gone 12-5, with 60 percent of its losses coming in games in which the Capitals did not score first.
Vegas has the highest win percentage of all 16 playoff teams when grabbing a 1-0 lead (.909 percent), so scoring first has been very good to Vegas so far this postseason. It’s something the Knights will look to do tonight in Game 1, especially in front of their home crowd.
Goalie duel part four
The Golden Knights have faced three excellent goaltenders in Quick, Martin Jones and Connor Hellebuyck. Marc-Andre Fleury has bested all three while outperforming every other goalie in the playoffs. That being said, Braden Holtby has played a key role in Washington’s postseason success thus far. Holtby is 12-6 with a .923 save percentage and a 2.04 goals-against average. He posted back-to-back shutouts in Games 6 and 7 against Tampa Bay, stopping 53 of 53 shots.
However, Fleury has still been better. He is 12-3 with an incredible .947 save percentage and 1.68 goals-against average. Those numbers are outrageous, though that’s certainly a word one could use to describe the play of Fleury in the second season.
Holtby has given up his share of soft goals, and his numbers aren’t comparable to Fleury’s. However, the Capitals would not have defeated the Penguins without the stellar play of Holtby, and it’s not a fluke that he held Tampa Bay off the scoresheet for the final 159:27 of the series. He can be solid when he’s playing with confidence, which is something the Knights will look to test early.
Special teams rule the game
Both the Golden Knights and Capitals have played very well at 5-on-5 throughout the playoffs, though both teams have also exhibited a lack of discipline on and off throughout the postseason. This means that, like always, special teams could very well play a key role in the outcome of the series.
The Capitals have the second-best power play of the playoffs, trailing only the Bruins, with a 28.8 percent conversion rate. However, Washington’s power-play efficiency has decreased in each round, going from 33.3 percent in the first round against Columbus to 26.7 percent in round two against Pittsburgh and down to 23.5 percent in the third round against Tampa Bay. This is a positive trend for the Knights, though Vegas’ penalty kill has also declined as the Knights have progressed in the playoffs, going from 92.3 percent against Los Angeles to 81.5 percent against San Jose to 76.5 percent against Winnipeg. The Knights still have a solid 82.5 percent success rate on the penalty kill for the postseason, but discipline will be extremely important against a Capitals team that has a league-high 17 power-play goals in the playoffs (the Knights have nine), especially since Washington has been better on the road (29.6 percent).
The Schmidt/McPhee storylines
It’s hard to head into this series without mentioning the fact that Nate Schmidt will play against his former team, the team that left him exposed in last year’s expansion draft, for the Stanley Cup. It’s certainly not an outcome anyone could have predicted at the start of this season, but it’s a storyline that should continue to be relevant throughout the series given how well Schmidt has played this postseason, especially in the last two rounds. He and defensive partner McNabb will be asked to play key minutes against Washington’s top players, so Schmidt will have every opportunity to be a game-changer for Vegas.
But like the Golden Knights’ inaugural season in its entirety, the matchup in the Stanley Cup Final is almost too ironic to be scripted. Not just because Washington and Vegas were two of the most unlikely candidates to make it this far, but because George McPhee, the mastermind behind this Golden Knights success story, has even deeper ties to the Capitals organization than Schmidt.
McPhee served as Washington’s general manager for 17 seasons before being relieved of his duties in April, 2014. Though many younger Capitals fans remember him for his short-sighted decision to trade Filip Forsberg in 2013, McPhee was responsible for drafting most of Washington’s current core, including Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Kuznetsov, John Carlson and Holtby, among others. Adding to the irony, he was in charge when the Capitals made the team’s only other Stanley Cup appearance in franchise history (1998). Plus, McPhee has known current Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan, the man who replaced McPhee when he was fired in 2014, for roughly 40 years. You can bet that both Schmidt and McPhee will be especially motivated against their former club.
How to Watch
Time: 5 p.m. PT
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM/1340 AM