How will the Washington Capitals be able to counteract the Vegas Golden Knights’ speed?
SEAN: Physicality helps, but the Capitals have also found themselves susceptible to an odd-man here and there, so smart decision-making on that end will be important. The Capitals won neutral zone battles against other fast teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning, so if they’re able to successfully slow Vegas down in the middle of the ice and force them to adjust, that will result in fewer successful zone entries and the potential turnover or two.
JAMES: There may be an olden times Star Wars meme for this answer. The thing is, the Capitals don’t necessarily need to slow things down and gum up the works to win. For the sake of our collective moment-to-moment entertainment, let’s hope that such measures are viewed as nuclear option, not the default.
Take a moment to ponder how dangerous the Capitals looked when things went wide open during their various series. The Penguins won Game 1 in round two, yet early on, it seemed like Washington might author a blowout based on their scary work on the rush. The Capitals have the horses to out-chance the Golden Knights, if they want to.
ADAM: Speed has been one of Vegas’ biggest advantages all season and that has been especially true in the playoffs. They overwhelmed Los Angeles and San Jose and at times made Winnipeg — a pretty fast team! — look slow. The thing is, I’m not really sure there is much Washington can do to combat that. At this point the two teams are what they are and play the way they do. You’re not going to get faster at this point. I think the key for Washington is to be disciplined, not take penalties, get continued strong goaltending from Braden Holtby to keep them in games, and capitalize on their power plays and win the special teams battle.
JOEY: The Kings, Sharks and Jets weren’t able to stop Vegas’ speed, so it’s unlikely that the Capitals will be able to do so. One thing the Caps did well in Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Final was limit dangerous scoring chances. The Lightning got their looks, but it appeared as though the Caps were able to keep them to the outside. I think that’s the key more than anything else. The Golden Knights are fast. Preventing them from using their speed will be tough. That doesn’t mean Washington can’t win the series anyway.
SCOTT: By doing the same sorts of things they did against the Penguins and the Lightning: be physical, win the game in the neutral zone and get an early lead. Vegas is nearly unstoppable once they score first. Make them chase the game. The Capitals are no slouches either in the speed game. They were able to work off the counterattack against the Lightning and they have some speedsters that can catch Vegas’ so-so defense looking. Question then becomes: Can they beat Marc-Andre Fleury
Can the Golden Knights win without their depth forwards making an impact?
SEAN: No. Six of their 30 goals from forwards have come from their bottom six. It’s worked through three rounds, but eventually they’ll need some contributions from others, right? The thing is, the goals from Ryan Reaves, Tomas Tatar and Tomas Nosek were pretty meaningful. So while their depth may not score in bunches, they have a timely way of making a mark.
But Gerard Gallant probabty doesn’t want to continue to rely on his top six, especially his first line, to carry the offensve load. The Capitals have received scoring from a number of contributors, and that’s played a big role in their success. That will likely continue into the Final. Vegas will need to counteract that.
JAMES: No, this time around, they need to add to their recent formula of “Fleury and the Jonathan Marchessault line will do almost everything.”
The bright side is that it’s conceivable that others might step up. The long break from the 2018 Western Conference Final gives David Perron as good a chance to be healthy as just about anything. James Neal only has four goals during this postseason, yet with 56 shots (just a 7.1 shooting percentage), the pending free agent could be poised for a breakout. Let’s also remember that Erik Haula offered a 29-goal, 55-point regular season. And, hey, maybe Gerard Gallant and Tomas Tatar squeezed in a heart-to-heart during the long layover?
ADAM: If I have a concern with the Golden Knights heading into this series it is probably the fact that their top-line has been carrying them offensively lately. That can work in the short-term as long as that top-line is scoring, but there is going to come a point where that trio stops scoring two or three goals every game. Who is going to pick up the slack at that point? One of the things that powered Vegas’ offense all season isn’t just the fact that it had that great top-line, but that it didn’t really have a weakness on any of its lines. It was pretty much one first line and two second lines and maybe a third line. That has kind of dried up a little bit in the playoffs. The good news: It is the same cast of players, so the potential is still there for it return. But if it doesn’t that is going to be an awful lot of pressure on one line to keep carrying the offense and that is not always a great recipe for success.
JOEY: Their depth scoring has been lacking throughout most of the postseason and they’ve managed to make it to the Stanley Cup Final so clearly they can do it. If James Neal, Erik Haula, David Perron and others don’t produce more, it just means that there’s more pressure on the top line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, Reilly Smith and Marc-Andre Fleury will have more pressure on their shoulders. If those guys continue to play lights-out, Vegas will have a chance. But getting some of the other forwards to contribute will help take the pressure off those guys.
The Capitals can get offensive contributions from their top three lines, so staying step-for-step with them will be tough for Vegas if only one line is clicking. But again, the Jets had plenty of firepower and that didn’t stop the Golden Knights from taking them out in the Western Conference Final without a huge contribution from their depth forwards. It’s not ideal, but it can happen.
SCOTT: No. Sure, Vegas’ top line has done much of the heavy lifting but their scoring falls off starting with their second line.
Erik Haula and James Neal on the second line have combined for seven goals in 15 games and their other linemate, David Perron, is still nursing that goose egg.
Alex Tuch has been a godsend at times in these playoffs, but he’s not carrying this team by any means. Nor is Ryan Reaves, and Tomas Nosek, who both scored perfectly timed goals but can’t be expected to produce much.
I expect Washington to pay special attention to Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith, so Vegas’ second line needs to start rolling.
What is the biggest X-factor in the series for both teams?
SEAN: Special teams.
The Capitals’ power play is very, very dangerous having scored on 28.8 percent of their opportunities this postseason. The Golden Knights’ man advantage unit has been fine, but only scoring at a 17.6 percent rate in eight fewer power play opportunities compared to Washington. Vegas’ penalty kill unit, meanwhile, has been strong with a 82.5 percent success rate, compared to that of Washington’s, which sits at 75.4 percent.
Both teams have played eight one-goal games in these playoffs, so you can imagine how important it will be to capitalize on special teams chances.
JAMES: The coaches.
Will Barry Trotz be willing to unleash the hounds if it looks like Vegas is giving up more chances than it is creating? As fantastic as Gerard Gallant has been in letting these Golden Knights play an aggressive style and seemingly not harping on every little mistake, I wonder if some Bad NHL Coach tendencies are starting to crop up. There were too many third periods against the Jets where Vegas went into turtle mode, and Fleury was able to stem the tide. I’m not so sure that will work when Washington has the luxury of going to “Ovechkin’s office” when they really need a goal.
More and more, in the modern NHL, a winning coach is one who’s willing to trust his players. If either bench boss leans too heavily toward risk aversion, that might just swing this championship series.
ADAM: Honestly I think the biggest X-factor here is simply Marc-Andre Fleury. Yeah, goaltending is always the biggest thing in a playoff series, but with the way Fleury is playing right now he might be what ultimately decides this. If he keeps playing the way he has through the first three rounds it may not matter what Braden Holtby does at the other end of the ice or what the Capitals do as a team. It is awfully difficult to bet .950 goaltending in a best-of-seven series, and that is pretty much what Fleury is doing right now. But what if he regresses just a little? If he has even a little bit of a slip up with the way Vegas is only getting offense from one line at the moment that could shift it all back to Washington. So basically I think the X-factor for both teams is simply how Fleury plays.
JOEY: I’m going with goaltending.
Marc-Andre Fleury has been terrific throughout the postseason and Braden Holtby has really turned it on over the last two weeks. Beating either goaltender isn’t going to be easy, so whichever team gets the better play between the pipes will likely take care of business. These teams are so evenly matched that a mistake here, or a bad goal there can be the difference between winning the Stanley Cup and going home empty-handed.
If Fleury’s save percentage continues to hover around .950, there’s a very good chance that the Golden Knights will win it all. If Holtby continues to play like he did in the final two games of the Eastern Conference Final (he’s also been very good for more than two games), the Caps will be tough to stop. The pressure is on these two goaltenders to continue playing at a high level.
SCOTT: It’s 100 percent Marc-Andre Fleury.
If he continues his near-.950 save percentage (.960 in 5-on-5 situations), I don’t think it matters what Washington does. Teams simply can’t take four games against a team that’s getting, historically, some of the best goaltending in the playoffs. The Capitals have gotten to the Cup Final on the back of Holtby’s .924 (.939 in 5-on-5 situations). That’s a good number, but it’s not God-like and is beatable.
If Fleury regresses, however, all bets are off. Washington has a bevy of shooters and the best power-play specialist in the league. Fleury was able to muzzle the Winnipeg Jets in the Western Conference Final. If he can do it against Ovechkin and Co. we’re going to see some crazy history being made.