The 2018 Stanley Cup Final might be one of the most intriguing matchups the NHL has had in years given the number of different storylines both teams carry into it.
You have the absurd development that is a first-year expansion team playing in the series and having a chance to win the whole thing after not even existing at this time a year ago.
You have Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin playing in his first Stanley Cup Final.
Then there is the fact that Vegas general manager George McPhee spent years holding the same position with the Capitals and has had a hand in building both of these teams. It is remarkable theatre, all of it.
And then there is the Marc-Andre Fleury vs. Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals storyline.
Before Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final I wrote about how the Capitals have had to face and overcome a lot of their previous postseason demons this year, from gut-punch losses, to having to once again face their arch-rival that had knocked them out in nine out of 10 previous postseason meetings, to being on the brink of letting a multiple-game series lead slip away.
To this point they have faced them all and conquered them all to reach the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1998 and only the second time in franchise history.
It is in this series that they will have to face the goalie that has helped shut down and eliminate two of the best Capitals teams of the past 10 years with a couple of stellar Game 7 wins in Washington. In 2009 it was Fleury robbing Ovechkin with a glove save on an early first period breakaway to help set the tone for a Penguins’ rout on their way to a Stanley Cup. Just one year ago it was Fleury blanking the Capitals with a 29-save shutout in another Game 7 to help the Penguins on their way to another Stanley Cup.
Given those two games and the results of both series it would be easy to look at this matchup as the Capitals having to face another postseason demon that has tortured them in the past. To a point that is kind of true.
Here is the weird thing about this matchup: the Capitals — and Ovechkin — have been able to get to Fleury quite a bit in their previous playoff matchups.
A lot, actually.
— In his 14 career playoff games against the Capitals Fleury has managed only a .902 save percentage and has allowed at least three goals in eight of those games and at least four goals in four of those games. Only once (the aforementioned Game 7 shutout a year ago) has he allowed less than two.
— That .902 save percentage in matchups with the Capitals is one of his lowest marks against teams that he has seen more than once in the playoffs. Throughout Fleury’s career he has played at least 10 playoff games against six different teams and that .902 mark against the Capitals is one of his worst against any opponent.
- In 11 games over two series against the Columbus Blue Jackets he has a .920 mark.
- In 13 games over two series against the Detroit Red Wings it is .918.
- In 17 games against the New York Rangers it is .924.
- In 18 games against the Ottawa Senators it is .906.
- In 14 games against the Capitals it is .902.
- In 17 games agains the Philadelphia Flyers it is .898.
If you look at it on an individual game basis, six of Fleury’s 30-worst individual save percentage games in the playoffs have come against the Capitals. That also includes two of his 10 worst.
— On an individual level Ovechkin has had more goal-scoring success against Fleury than he has against any other goalie/team he has faced more than once in the playoffs. In 14 games against Fleury in the playoffs Ovechkin has scored 10 goals, a .714 goals per game average (that would be a 58-goal pace over 82 games).
For comparisons sake, In 13 games against the Flyers over two series in his career he has seven goals (a .538 average). In 33 games against the Rangers over five series he has 13 goals (a .380 average). In two series against the Penguins with Matt Murray in net he has five goals in 12 games (a .416 average).
Basically all of Fleury’s success and dominance of the Capitals in the playoffs comes down to a breakaway early in one game, and a Game 7 shutout that featured an Ovechkin shot being an inch in either direction from potentially changing the course of the game, series, and season for both teams.
Obviously given the circumstances those performances and saves will stand out, especially in the context of Fleury and the Penguins going on to win and the Capitals … well … not winning.
But from a big picture perspective Ovechkin and the Capitals’ issue against Fleury hasn’t been their ability to beat him. Because they do. In the two series against him they’ve both scored more than enough goals to win only to have their own goaltenders implode on themselves, or the defense to fall apart, or something else to go wrong. That kind of goes back to what the whole Alex Ovechkin — and the Capitals — playoff story has been like until this season: No matter how good things seem for him and the team, there is always that one thing that goes wrong at the wrong time. In a sport where there is such a razor thin line between success or failure, one shot, one play, one call can completely change everything. Or one early breakaway or one shot off the butt end of a goalie’s stick.
So what does this all mean for this series? Probably not much. Each series is its own independent event and what happened a year ago or 10 years ago really does not matter this season.
Maybe Fleury keeps playing the way he has through the first three rounds and stones the Capitals. Maybe Ovechkin scores five or six goals and Vegas lignts up Holtby for five goals a game and it happens to the Capitals again. Maybe Ovechkin scores five or six goals in the series and Braden Holtby is able to do is job at the other end and help the Capitals finally win hockey’s ultimate prize. Who is to know?
In the end it is just another intriguing storyline in what is probably one of the more fascinating Stanley Cup Final matchups we have ever seen. Ovechkin and the Capitals have arrived on the biggest stage after successfully rewriting their postseason narrative … and they have to face one of the key guys that has seemingly helped make that narrative what it is.
So far this postseason the Capitals have consistently been able to face those razor thin margins and previous postseason demons and come away on the right side of them.
It is kind of fitting that they get one more chance to completely change their story against one of their long-time foes.
2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
• Who has the better forwards?
• Who has better defense?
• Who has better goaltending?
• Who has better special teams?
• Who has better coaching?
• How Golden Knights were built
• How Capitals were built