Stanley Cup Finalists Capitals, Golden Knights are heating up

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Following up a run to the Stanley Cup Final is never really easy, but it seemed like an especially big challenge for the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights.

After all, the Capitals partied enough to kill a small town’s worth of brain cells, while the Golden Knights went on the sort of run we’ve never really seen for a contemporary expansion team in professional sports.

Yet, as we enjoy the final leftovers of Thanksgiving weekend, the two 2018 Stanley Cup Finalists seem to be rounding into form.

A familiar spot

By beating the New York Rangers 5-3 at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, the Capitals rattled off their fifth consecutive win. With that, the Capitals regained what almost feels like their rightful place atop the Metropolitan Division by way of nabbing 29 points in 23 games.

It’s not a huge lead, mind you. The persistent Columbus Blue Jackets are a mere standings point (28) behind the Capitals in the same number (23) of games played.

As far as what’s working, it also feels like much of the familiar. The Capitals’ 80 goals leads the Metro Division, helping them generate a +7 goal differential. Perhaps the least surprising element of all is Washington’s dangerous power play, as the Capitals’ 27.8-percent success rate slightly leads the Lightning for fourth-best in the NHL.

Capitals’ success and a keyed-in Braden Holtby tend to go together, too. Holtby’s now on a three-game winning streak, only allowing three goals overall during that span. After a tough October, Holtby generated an impressive .934 save percentage over eight November games.

It’s unclear if the Capitals will be able to finish ahead of the Blue Jackets and other rivals to win another division title, but overall, you can file this start under “so far, so good.” And you can mostly dismiss notions about a Stanley Cup hangover.

Digging the Golden Knights

Vegas isn’t in the same cushy spot that Washington is, at least not yet.

If the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs began as of this writing, the Golden Knights would not be in the mix. They’re currently ranked ninth in the West, as their 12-12-1 record for 25 points leaves them just behind the Anaheim Ducks for third (the Ducks have 25 points too, but in one fewer game played) in the paltry Pacific.

Sure, it’s been a slightly disappointing start through a quarter-and-change of this second season in the NHL, particularly since Vegas made some significant investments in free agency.

But the good news is that the Golden Knights clearly aren’t very far out of the playoffs, and they’re finally starting to get the sort of bounces that were (amusingly, from afar) weren’t there in 2018-19 after very much being there in 2017-18.

After battering the San Jose Sharks by a sobering score of 6-0 on Saturday, the Golden Knights have won three games in a row, with all of those victories coming against Pacific rivals. This small winning streak isn’t the only thing that’s promising, either; the Golden Knights can be especially heartened by who is heating up.

Most obviously, Marc-Andre Fleury is looking a whole lot more like the guy who stood on his head basically all of last season (until he ran into the Capitals in that 2018 Stanley Cup Final). After stopping 33 shots against the Sharks, “MAF” has now rattled off consecutive shutouts. Fleury’s won four straight games overall, only allowing five goals during his hot streak.

As Vegas’ starting goalie (and taking into account Malcolm Subban‘s considerable struggles), Fleury is the most important single element of the Golden Knights’ rise. Even so, it’s almost as refreshing to see Max Pacioretty seemingly shaking off his slow start.

“Patches” generated two goals in that rout of the Sharks, extending his point streak to five games (six goals, one assist for seven points). Pacioretty also has nine points in his last seven contests. That’s an enormous burst of energy when you consider that Pacioretty staggered through his first few weeks with the Golden Knights, starting off his stay with a troubling two points through his first 12 games.

Rattling off three straight wins won’t transform an 82-game season, but it’s worth noting because the Golden Knights have actually been arguing for their legitimacy with their work on the ice, only to not exactly reap the rewards.

Via Natural Stat Trick, the Golden Knights rank third in shot-share numbers like Corsi For and Fenwick For Percentage (not to mention actual shots for percentage). They only trail the puck-hogging Carolina Hurricanes as far as hogging the greatest number of scoring chances, and have had similar success in creating more high-danger chances than they’ve allowed.

They simply hadn’t been getting those precious, precious bounces. Their 6.8 even-strength shooting percentage ranks sixth-worst in the NHL, and their team save percentage (90.08) is third-worst at even-strength.

In other words, the underlying stats have argued for a while that the Golden Knights have actually been quite good in 2018-19, but they weren’t getting the saves and the luck.

It stands to reason, then, that the Golden Knights could be a very tough opponent if they merely enjoy league-average luck. With that in mind, Fleury heating up is a very good sign, unless you’re a West team trying to grind out a playoff spot.

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Does all of this point to a rematch for the Capitals and Golden Knights in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final?

It would be foolish even to call that the league’s most likely matchup. With teams like the Jets, Predators, Lightning, and Maple Leafs standing in the way, both Washington and Vegas would face huge barriers in making deep runs once again.

That said, there were fears that both the Capitals and Golden Knights would stumble badly in attempting encores to their rousing performance last season. While there have indeed been challenges – and almost certainly will be more during what often feels like marathon NHL campaigns – both teams are bolstering arguments that they must be taken seriously once again.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.