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.
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
The NHL has already announced that the Smart Puck era is quickly approaching, which is exciting news for hockey fans all over the globe.
The league is planning on having this added technology at their disposal for the start of the 2019-20 season, but there’s a chance that we could get a preview of it at the start of next year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs.
So you might be wondering how this will enhance the hockey experience for fans, coaches and players. It’s simple. The technology will allow the league to track the puck’s movement on the ice at a rate of 200 times per second. That means that coaches will be able to get more information when it comes to possession, shot placement, shot distance and probably speed. If the coaches are getting their hands on that information, it means that they’ll be able to provide their players with even more specific data.
From a fan perspective, the added information will give outsiders more access to accurate advanced information. There are a few analytics website that already provide shot location information, but this would add a level of accuracy that we’ve never had before.
The Smart Puck can also change the way fans gamble on hockey.
“There’s no doubt that [sports betting] will be a part of the fan experience almost across any touchpoint. Live streaming products will start to incorporate betting functionality. And today, the foundation for that experience is data,” said NHL senior vice president of business development and global partnerships David Lehanski, per Sporttechie.com. “We’re seeing that 75 percent of all bets in sports now are in-game prop bets. The only way we can do that in a real-time manner is to be aggregating data and distributing it on a real-time basis with someone who can create odds and probabilities in real time and distribute that to the fan.”
The San Jose Sharks arguably got the best bang for their buck at the trade deadline when they acquired Evander Kane from the Buffalo Sabres. No one was really sure how Kane would fit in with his new team, but he made enough of an impact that the Sharks are reportedly about to hand a new seven-year contract extension, according to Irfaan Gaffar of Sportsnet.
The report suggests that Kane’s new contract will come with a cap hit in the $7 million range. Locking up the enigmatic winger for that long could be seen as risky, but the fact that he’s going to be 27 years old when the season starts takes some of the risk out of the new deal.
When the trade between the Sharks and Sabres went down in February, many speculated that Kane would be nothing more than a rental. After all, if San Jose extends him, the second-round pick they’re sending to Buffalo becomes a first-rounder in 2019. Kane fit in so well on the top line with Joe Pavelski and Joonas Donskoi that it appears as though they don’t mind giving up their top selection in next summer’s entry draft (can you blame them?).
Oh, and by the way, the 2019 pick is lottery protected, according to the Associated Press. So if the Sharks were to fall apart next season, they could push the selection to 2020.
Kane hit a bit of a rut during his time in Buffalo, but it’s hard to blame him? No one should be making excuses for a millionaire on skates, but these guys are human, too. The Sabres haven’t played meaningful hockey in so long that daily motivation is probably hard to come by.
In San Jose, it became clear pretty early on that Kane was going to be comfortable in his new surroundings. He had 20 goals and 20 assists in 61 games before the trade and nine goals and 14 points in 17 games with the Sharks. In the postseason, he added four goals and one assist in nine contests.
As you’d expect, all of his advanced metrics went up after he moved to the West Coast. According to Natural Stat Trick, his CF% went from 49.94 in Buffalo to 53.60 in San Jose. His FF% 50.80 to 55.03, his SF% went up by almost six percent. When Pavelski was on the ice with Kane, his CF% was 56.11. When Pavelski was on the ice without Kane, his CF% was 46.27 percent. Playing together clearly made both players better.
There’s a risk anytime a team hands out a long-term contract. In this case, Kane hasn’t been the most consistent player over the course of his career, so there’s a little cause for concern. But it’s also important to note that power forwards that can skate and that are under 30 rarely hit the open market. Even if they do hit free agency, you never know how well they’ll fit in with your current group of players. This situation is already different in that respect because the Sharks had a couple of months to evaluate him in their building, with their players. He fits.
Handing over roughly $50 million over to Kane likely means that they’ll be out of the running for John Tavares, but there’s no guarantee that the Islanders captain will go there if he hits the market anyway.
GM Doug Wilson is making the right decision here.
UPDATE: The Sharks made the signing official on Thursday morning. The financial terms of the deal weren’t officially released, but many insiders have speculated the it will be worth $49 million.
“At only 26 years old, Evander has established himself as one of hockey’s true power forwards and an impact player,” GM Doug Wilson said in a release. “We think his abilities mesh perfectly with our group of skilled, young players and veteran leaders. It’s extremely heartening to have Evander join a trend of elite players who have chosen to remain in San Jose. It speaks volumes as to how players view this organization and further illustrates the continued commitment to our fans by our owner Hasso Plattner.”
It’s been a journey to this point for the Capitals’ two star players. They’ve experienced the numerous disappointments and been reminded of them every spring. Those three seasons that ended with a Presidents’ Trophy, and an early-round playoff exit. Those six series eliminations at the hands of the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins. The high expectations that were never met.
But this year was different. This is not the best Capitals team of the Ovechkin/Backstrom era. Even with an eighth division title since 2007-08, there were plenty of other favorites ahead of them on the list of 2018 Stanley Cup favorites. Why? Well, for starters, we’d seen that movie before and we all knew the ending.
So when the Capitals fell behind 0-2 to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round, it was surprising, but not too surprising. Same old Capitals, we all said. But then head coach Barry Trotz went back to his horse in Braden Holtby beginning with Game 3 and the turnaround began. Holtby would help the Capitals win 12 of his 17 starts, post a .935 even strength save percentage and two shutouts — with both coming in the final two games of the Eastern Conferenece Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
It was a second consecutive all-around effort for the Capitals after they lost control of the best-of-seven matchup with three straight losses following two wins at AMALIE Arena to begin the series.
“I think we’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time,” said Ovechkin. “We understand what it has to take to be in the final. You can see the effort right now. This game was unbelievable. Everybody was all in, and we get the result.”
“It only took us 11 years, but now we’re there,” said Backstrom. “It’s a great feeling, especially the way we did it, too. The way we played the game, I thought it was outstanding from everybody. Right now, I’m just happy. I’m just going to enjoy this for a couple of days.”
The journey continues Monday at T-Mobile Arena for Game 1 of the Final (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) when the Capitals visit the Vegas Golden Knights, who employ Washington’s old general manager, George McPhee, and old defenseman, Nate Schmidt. The series will certainly not be short of storylines.
Ovechkin, who is probably still holding on to the Prince of Wales Trophy as you read this, called Game 7 “probably” the biggest game of his life and of the franchise’s. He delivered by scoring 62 seconds into the game, and after the final buzzer went off the emotions of the moment rendered him unable to finish thoughts during his post-game press conference.
Years of disappointment are being wiped away with each series victories. The Capitals exorcised the ghosts of the Pittsburgh Penguins that had haunted them for years and finally got over the hump of advancing to the conference final. Now, for the first time since 1998, they’ll be playing in a series with the Stanley Cup on the line.
“Every series is tough. We just played our game, stick to the system and we deserved to win,” Ovechkin told NBCSN after Game 7. “[There] were hard moments in all series, against Tampa, against [Pittsburgh], against Columbus. but we fight through it and we’re right now four wins away from [being] Stanley Cup champions.”
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub