By Bill Sands
In a match-up that nobody could have predicted at the start of the regular season, the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights are set to face-off in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night. Both teams had dramatic runs to get to this point, and the series is shaping up to one of the more exciting finals in recent memory.
In order for the Caps to keep rolling, they’ll need to take care of a few key tasks. Let’s take a look at the series and review the most important factors:
Defense Wins Championships
It’s an age-old saying, but for 2018, it’s been as relevant as ever. Vegas has a stifling defense, backstopped by familiar foe for the Capitals in Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury has posted mind-boggling numbers this spring, with a 1.68 GAA and .947 save percentage. For the Caps, Braden Holtby has been almost as good, stepping in during the Columbus series and posting a 2.04 GAA and .924 save percentage to date this postseason. Holtby shut out Tampa Bay in Games 6 and 7 and hasn’t allowed a goal in over 150 minutes of game time. Playoff hockey is always tight, but it may come down to whichever goalie plays better – or whichever team discovers the opposing goalie’s Achilles heel.
One of the main reasons for the breakout season in Vegas is the play of their top line: Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith have been outstanding all year and are a constant threat. Washington has a lethal top line as well, with Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Tom Wilson using a perfect blend of skill and physicality to terrify opposing defenses. If the Ovi-Kuzy-Willie line fires on all cylinders throughout the Final series – and Wilson doesn’t somehow get himself suspended again – then the Capitals are in excellent shape.
Both teams have excellent top lines, but having depth is just as important. The Caps advanced in Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning thanks to a pair of goals from Andre Burakovsky. Devante Smith-Pelly, Chandler Stephenson and Jakub Vrana have all contributed timely offense as well. Vegas is a similarly stacked team that rolls four lines, all of which can dominate puck possession and contribute offense. Ryan Reaves, a fourth-line trade acquisition, scored the series-clinching goal in Game 5 against the Winnipeg Jets.
The Caps have been outstanding on the road this year and their play away from Capital One Arena was the key to their win over Tampa. Vegas has been equally impressive and comes in with a 6-2 record on the road. This seems like a rare instance where playing on the road can actually work in the Caps’ favor, as a win in Game 1 would be a huge step in the right direction. Having said that, as we saw in the Tampa Bay series, if the Capitals win the first two games in Vegas, they need to figure out a way to secure at least one home win in Games 3 and 4.
Vegas Is Favorite According To … Las Vegas
Las Vegas odds-makers currently has the Golden Knights as the favorite, but not many people are counting the Caps out just yet. In fact, what do they know? Those same odds-makers had the Caps losing to Pittsburgh and to Tampa Bay in earlier rounds. Whatever happens, it should be a great series.
Stay tuned for more coverage!