More studious hockey fans probably aren’t bothered by this, but on occasion, I will be taken off guard by an early Saturday afternoon game. Well, this happened more often in my uncouth college years, but that’s another discussion for another time.
LAS VEGAS (AP) — George McPhee’s endgame has always been about making the Golden Knights contenders.
Strategic moves to keep winning.
The veteran general manager has ridden his savvy all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, a stirring run by the first-year franchise and the first major sports team in Las Vegas. While the expansion draft gets most of the attention in attempts to explain the unusual success, the moves made by McPhee in late February, when the trade deadline came along, have proven just as important.
”I wanted to wait as long as we could to determine what we had as a team,” McPhee recalled. ”At the trade deadline we felt it was a very good team. But it was getting thin, we were getting banged up, guys out of the lineup, we had other guys playing hurt. We wanted to do the very best we could for this team that was playing its guts out, to help it.”
He began moving pawns across the NHL chessboard, starting with the acquisition of forward Tomas Tatar from the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for three draft picks: a first-round pick in 2018, a second-round pick in 2019 and a third-round pick in 2021. Tatar brought with him a contract worth $15.9 million through the 2020-21 season.
While the Golden Knights did send Brendan Leipsic to Vancouver for Philip Holm, perhaps the biggest trade was the one for bruising forward Ryan Reaves from Pittsburgh, a move that included the Golden Knights acquiring 40 percent of Derick Brassard‘s contract. Brassard going to Pittsburgh from Ottawa meant the talented center would not be going to Winnipeg – the team Vegas just beat in a rugged Western Conference final.
Many wondered whether the trade would be worth it given Reaves’ notoriety for physical play. But Reaves brought some brawn to the Golden Knights and scored the game-winning goal in Game 5 at Winnipeg.
”We just thought when we get into the games down the stretch and we’re in the playoffs, we can have a guy that can play the game right,” McPhee said. ”Ryan did a good job of providing the line and getting us good, hard, safe minutes on some nights. Even though they’re not scoring like some of the other lines, they’re one of our better lines because they’re playing the game right. The other team isn’t getting chances, we’re keeping it deep on them and playing physical on them.”
McPhee and coach Gerard Gallant also wanted to make sure the chemistry built over the first five months of the inaugural season wasn’t disrupted. And that meant keeping most of the lineup intact.
That included unrestricted free agents David Perron and James Neal, both of whose names swirled in trade rumors, and at the beginning of the season were perceived as rentals until the deadline. Nobody saw the Golden Knights doing as well they did, so it was conceivable guys like Perron and Neal could’ve been sent to playoff contenders for future draft picks or younger, up-and-coming players by the deadline.
As it turned out, Perron and Neal were already on a playoff contender and on their way to stellar seasons. Perron registered a career-high 66 points in the regular season, while Neal piled up 25 goals, scoring at least 20 in each of his first 10 NHL seasons. The only other current players to do the same: Jaromir Jagr, Patrick Kane, Alex Ovechkin, Jonathan Toews and Thomas Vanek.
”We knew that we weren’t moving anybody out,” Gallant said. ”We were happy with our lineup, we were happy with the group of players we got. We talked about adding players to our team, to make our team better and we definitely did that. But there was no thought about moving any of players out at that time. We had a great season, everything was going good and we wanted to make sure we had enough security for a playoff run and that’s what they did.”
The Golden Knights await the winner of the East final between Tampa Bay and Washington, with Game 7 set for Wednesday night. The Stanley Cup Final begins Monday.
More AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey
The Washington Capitals are headed back to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 20 years and Lovettsville, Virginia (pop. of around 2,000) is getting behind the team in a unique way. Come Friday, the town could have an entirely new name.
Earlier this month, Lovettsville Mayor Robert J. Zoldos proposed that if the Capitals beat the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final, he would attempt to get city council approval to temporarily rename the town “Capitalsville.” The name change would last until either the Capitals lost in the Final to the Vegas Golden Knights or until a week after they capture their first title.
The renaming would be akin to how the Washington, PA, City Council renamed its town “Steeler, PA” for a week in 2006 when the Pittsburgh Steelers played in, and won, Super Bowl XL against the Seattle Seahawks.
Zoldos said that as he watched Wednesday night’s game at Velocity Wings across the street from the Lovettsville Town Office, he wasn’t expecting the Capitals to pull off a blowout against the Lightning like they did. In fact, he was too nervous to even write the resolution for tonight’s meeting until after the team won. “The game was just incredible,” he said.
The vote takes place Thursday night with four approvals needed, which given the excitement around the D.C. area should come pretty easy.
There will be perks to go along with “Capitalsville” and a Capitals championship. Along with signage promoting the new name around town, there have been discussions with the team about viewing parties, as well as having players involved in a parade should they end up defeating the Golden Knights.
Let’s have a discussion about the Tampa Bay Lightning, shall we?
On one hand, they have recently been one of the NHL’s most successful teams.
They have reached at least the Eastern Conference Final in three of the past four seasons, and that includes a trip to the Stanley Cup Final. The one year they did not reach the conference final during this run they missed the playoffs by a single point in a year where they were decimated by injuries, including a crushing one to their top player — Steven Stamkos — that sidelined him for almost all of the season.
By any definition this is a wildly successful organization.
They are well run by a smart, innovative front office that has exploited a lot of areas where other teams have had blind spots (the Lightning do not shy away from undersized forwards; they are not afraid to draft players from Russia).
They have one of the best coaches in the NHL in Jon Cooper, who has won at every single level, winning championships in the USHL and AHL, and then coaching in a Cup Final.
They have great players all over the lineup including two of the top forwards in the league (Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov), an elite No. 1 defenseman (Victor Hedman), and a Vezina Trophy finalist (Andrei Vasilevskiy).
They have a steady pipeline of young talent that keeps coming through the system to give them a deep, talented roster.
They are not afraid to go all in and make a big move to add to their roster at the deadline.
They win a lot of games and go deep in the playoffs. There is a lot to be said for all of this.
Yet, even with all of that it still kind of feels like it has all been a somewhat disappointing run because they keep coming up just a little bit short.
Maybe “disappointing” is too strong of a word because it is damn hard to keep consistently reaching the final four every year. As I wrote a few days ago when talking about the Capitals having to once again face their postseason demons, sports is ultimately a story of failure. Championships are hard to come by and even getting within a stone’s throw of one is an incredible challenge. It is not necessarily a failure to lose in the Cup Final or lose in the conference final ever year.
But it still feels like there has been a big opportunity missed here to get a championship.
What makes it seem like such a big missed opportunity for the Lightning is the way they keep falling short in these situations, completely falling apart and going out with a whimper when they seem to be in control of a series.
Let’s start with this year’s loss in the Eastern Conference Final to the Capitals.
After falling into an 0-2 series hole by dropping the first two games on home ice, the Lightning roared back with three consecutive wins to seemingly take control of the series, sitting just one win shy of going back to the Final.
They not only failed to get that one win, they failed to score a goal in the two games that followed, losing by a combined score of 7-0. In the process they were completely outplayed, outclassed, and thoroughly dominated by the Capitals in pretty much every phase of the game. Prior to that meltdown the Lightning were 11-4 in this year’s playoffs (8-2 in the first two rounds, including a rather convincing thumping of a really good Boston Bruins team) after finishing the regular season as the top seed in the Eastern Conference. To call it an underwhelming exit based on everything that preceded it would be an understatement.
If that script sounds familiar it’s probably because it is nearly identical to what happened to them in 2016. After winning back-to-back games to take a 3-2 series lead against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Lightning returned home for Game 6 with a chance to clinch what would have been a second consecutive trip to the Cup Final. Instead, they came out on home ice and completely laid an egg, falling behind 3-0 through two periods and putting themselves in a hole they could not dig out of. They were outscored 7-3 in the final two games of that series.
In the 2015 Cup Final, the Lightning won two of the first three games against the Chicago Blackhawks. They then proceeded to score just two goals for the remainder of the series, dropping three games in a row to lose the series.
The common denominator in all of those late series collapses is an offense that just completely vanishes with the season and series on the line. When that happens the focus always shifts to the team’s top players, and in this case that would be Stamkos and Kucherov.
Let’s start with Stamkos, who has now played in six career Game 7s and, well, the numbers are not kind.
Harsh … but fair.
Things are not much better for Kucherov who has zero points and only seven shots on goal in four career Game 7s.
I am not a fan of making big picture judgements about players based on individual games or even individual playoff series’ because there is a lot of times a lot of noise and randomness there, and it’s not like these two players haven’t performed at other times in the playoffs. All playoff games are big games. All playoff games are pressure situations.
Among active players that have appeared in at least 50 playoff career playoff games Kucherov has the second-highest goals per game average in the league, trailing only some guy named Ovechkin.
Stamkos’ overall playoff production drops a bit from his normal regular season numbers, but it is not a huge drop and he is still very productive overall.
But you can not hide from those numbers in Game 7s. They are rough, and if you extend it to potential elimination games (games where either the Lightning are facing elimination or can knock out an opponent) he has just five goals in 20 such games. When the team not only doesn’t win, but also bows out the way they have those numbers are going to be talked about.
The frustrating thing about this there really isn’t anything the Lightning can do about it.
At least, there is nothing they should do about it. This isn’t a situation that calls for drastic changes. This isn’t something that requires an overhaul of the team or its core or the way it operates or the way it plays. The worst thing they can do is overreact and conclude that they are doing something wrong. It is obvious the team is good. The team has shown it is capable of going deep in the playoffs and making a serious run at a championship. When you get to Game 7 of the Conference Final or five or six games deep into the Stanley Cup Final you are often times literally just a single shot, call, or bounce away.
Sometimes it goes your way. Sometimes it does not.
If there is a lesson to be learned here it should be taken from the Capitals themselves because for years they were the team sitting in the Lightning’s current position (only not quite as good because they were not even going as deep in the playoffs as the Lightning have) of consistently coming up just short in every painful way imaginable no matter how great the team was. The parallels are striking, right down to having one of this generations top goal-scorers. At times the Capitals made some philosophical mistakes in the way they played, and maybe a coaching blunder or two (hello Dale Hunter and Adam Oates era), but they stuck with their superstars. They stuck with the players that kept getting them close and believed that eventually things would go their way.
They finally are going their way.
Until that happens for the Lightning, though, they are going to be stuck facing criticism for not being able to get the job done and missing a big opportunity.
The Capitals are in the process of rewriting their story.
Now the Lightning have replaced them in the “you were so close, how did you lose this?” discussion.
Now that the Stanley Cup Final is officially set with the Washington Capitals taking on the Vegas Golden Knights, the field of potential Conn Smythe trophy winners has been cut down once again.
The clear leader remains the same, and it is still Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
Not only is he still in the lead, there is a pretty strong argument to be made that barring a complete collapse in the Stanley Cup Final it might be his whether the Golden Knights win or lose the series. It would not be entirely fair to say he is the only reason Vegas has reached this point (that top line is pretty spectacular, too), but he is the foundation of the team and is having a pretty historic run through the playoffs that has to be considered one of the best performances of all-time.
Just consider that of the 139 goalies that have appeared in at least 15 playoff games in a single postseason none have recorded a higher save percentage than Fleury’s .947 this season. Along with that he already has four shutouts, including two in series-clinching wins.
If Vegas wins, he is the slam-dunk winner and leading a first-year expansion team to a championship (which would be his fourth) becomes the defining moment of his career and perhaps the last thing he needs to secure a spot in the Hall of Fame.
If Vegas loses, it still might be a good enough performance to earn him the award.
There is precedent for such a thing to happen as it has been awarded to a member of the losing team five times, with the most recent time coming in 2002-03 when Jean-Sebastien Giguere won it in a losing effort for the Anaheim Ducks.
Ron Hextall (Philadelphia Flyers, 1987), Reggie Leach (Philadelphia Flyers, 1976), Glenn Hall (St. Louis Blues, 1968), Roger Crozier (Detroit Red Wings, 1966) were the others.
It takes a pretty spectacular effort to get that sort of recognition (Giguere’s performance in 2003 was one of the greatest goaltending performances in playoff history that included five shutouts. Leach scored what is still a league-record 19 playoff goals in 1976) and Fleury might be at that level right now.
While he is the clear leader, that does not mean there are not other players that could still overtake him over the next two weeks.
Let’s take a look at the rankings.
1. Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights. As talked about above, if he maintains this level of play throughout the next round it might be good enough whether his team wins or not.
[Related: These playoffs belong to Marc-Andre Fleury]
2. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals. If there is anybody that is going to overtake Fleury right now the leading contender would have to be Ovechkin. He has been, quite simply, fantastic for the Capitals. After scoring the eventual game-winner in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final he now has 12 goals in 19 playoffs games, is averaging more than a point-per-game (22 points in 19 games), now has a pair of game-winning goals, and has just been a dominant figure in the Capitals’ run to the Final. Everything is going through him offensively. None of this should change your perception of Ovechkin as a player because he has always done this in the playoffs. The only difference this season is everything is falling in place around him to finally get him and the Capitals to the Stanley Cup Final.
3. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals. Since reclaiming his starting spot in Game 3 of the first-round Holtby has been everything the Capitals have needed him to be. They have won 12 out of the 18 games he has started, he has a .924 save percentage which is very close to his career postseason mark of .930 (which is one of the best all-time), and he just pitched back-to-back shutouts in Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against one of the highest scoring teams in the league. Just like Ovechin, Holtby has always been a big-time performer in the playoffs for the Capitals, even in defeat.
4. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals. It seems like we are not paying enough attention to the fact that Kuznetsov enters the Stanley Cup Final as the leading scorer in these playoffs with 24 points in 19 games. He is also riding a 10-game point streak that included a run where he scored a goal in six out of seven games. That stretch included a series-clinching overtime goal in Game 6 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, a goal that might be the defining moment of the Capitals’ playoff run given their history against the Penguins. In Game 5 of that series he scored a game-tying goal in the opening minute of the third period to help shift the series in their favor.
5. Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights. While Fleury is shutting teams down in net, Marchessault has been the driving force behind the Vegas offense. He is leading the team with 18 points in 15 games and was a game-changer in the Western Conference Final against the Winnipeg Jets, recording seven points in five games, including a pair of two-goal games. Not only has he proven that his 30-goal season a year ago was not a fluke and that he is a legitimate top-line player in the NHL, but that contract extension he signed with Vegas that will pay him $5 million per year is starting to look a steal for the Golden Knights.