The Washington Capitals met the media for the final time this season during locker clean out day on Wednesday and we got to see a sober and clean shavenAlex Ovechkin, plus we learned about the various injuries some players dealt with during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“I tried to play Game 6 [vs. Penguins], the hand was too swollen with the fracture,” Backstrom said via the Washington Post. “That was probably the worst finger to have, too. Any other finger it probably would’ve been fine. But this one is the one that I actually use. I got better and better every week. Which is good. They did a great job with all the treatments and stuff. It sucked at the time but we got it done. I got to play again.”
Forward Andre Burakovsky revealed he broke both thumbs during the season, including his right one during the first round.
In the grossest injury of the Final, defenseman Brooks Orpik, who had already suffered a hand injury in the first round, said that the tip of his left pinkie had to be reattached after being slashed by Erik Haula in Game 2.
“It probably looked worse than it was, to be honest with you,” he said. “It was tough to look at, but the trainers did a really good job. It was never something I thought would keep me from playing.”
Finally, the most important question about this summer seems to moving towards getting an answer. Head coach Barry Trotz, who is not signed beyond July 1, said he and general manager Brian MacLellan have spoken about an extension and will work through “a few issues” to get a new deal done.
Depth is one of the big reasons why the Vegas Golden Knights have been able to have an incredible inaugural season. They used the expansion draft to create a solid lineup and that group has carried them to the Stanley Cup Final. But, somehow, depth is proving to be an issue for them against the Capitals.
For Vegas to play themselves back in this series, they’ll need their second line to pick up their play by a notch or two. James Neal, Erik Haula and David Perron have to get going before it’s too late.
Despite starting in the offensive zone 75 percent of the time in Game 3, the line really struggled at even strength. Perron had a team-worst CF% of 32.14 percent, while Neal (37.93) and Haula (45.16) were all below 50 percent.
Perron was moved to the second line in an attempt to get himself and the other two players rolling, again. That simply hasn’t happened. The 30-year-old is still searching for his first goal of the playoffs and outside of Neal’s tally in Game 2, the trio hasn’t produced much.
“We just weren’t good enough,” Neal after Game 3, per the Vegas Review-Journal. “That’s our line, for sure. A lot to blame. We were on the ice for every goal, so we’ve got to be better. We’re a veteran line and we’ve been in this situation before.”
When a Stanley Cup Final has been tied 1-1, the team that wins Game 3 goes on to win it all 78 percent of the time, so the odds are stacked against the Golden Knights at this point. Thankfully for them, this isn’t the first time they’ve overcome long odds.
In fairness to them, many people counted them out after they dropped a 4-2 decision to the Winnipeg Jets in the Western Conference Final. Not only did they bounce back, they managed to sweep the next four games to punch their ticket to the final.
The first line of William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith helped carry them to this point, but they’ll continue to get most of the tough matchups, especially in Washington. That’s where the Haula line has to come in and do the job. There’s going to be nights when the first line doesn’t chip in. If Vegas doesn’t get any offense from the top two lines, there’s a very good chance they’re not going to come away with a victory.
Using their speed to get to the dangerous areas in the Capitals zone is vital to their success. They haven’t done it enough in this series and that has to change.
“I’m sure everyone can play more simple,” said Perron. “But as a line, for us, we’re offensive guys, and if there’s a play, we need to execute. We made it up to this point because we executed all year, and we’ve got to do it again.”
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.
The Golden Knights netminder is sporting one of the best postseason save percentages of all-time among qualified goaltenders. His .947 has helped Vegas breeze through three rounds and continue their magical inaugural season. His low, medium and higher danger save percentages (per Corsica Hockey) are top two among goalies in these playoffs. Regression has to arrive at some point, right?
Historically, Fleury’s numbers aren’t even close to what his put up this spring. But between the four fewer games Vegas has played than Washington and the extra rest built in between the Golden Knights’ series, he only needs to keep this up at for at most seven more games.
We’ve all been waiting for Vegas to fall back to earth all season and it hasn’t happened. We’ve been waiting for Fleury to do the same in these playoffs. What’s another two weeks of playing out of this world?
Each series brings a new set of challenges and you Barry Trotz and his staff are looking for ways at slowing down that top line. If they cannot produce on a given night, someone else will need to contribute. Vegas’ top six has had their fingerprints all over their success this spring, and while their bottom six has had a knack of scoring some big, timely goals when they do, Washington could use this to their advantage. The Capitals have been aided by their depth throughout this entire run. Vegas hasn’t needed it. Only four more wins to go.
Who gets to lift the Stanley Cup second?
If the Capitals win, Alex Ovechkin will take the Cup from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. Should the Golden Knights be victorious, de-facto captain and Vegas resident Deryk Engelland will likely be the guy. But who will they pass it to after taking a twirl and giving the Cup a smooch?
Brooks Orpik is the “old guy” on the team and is also the only Capital with experience playing in the Final. He has a ring, so he’s out. The logical choice for Ovechkin is his running mate who’s been through all the ups and downs the franchise has experienced since the 2005-06 season: Nicklas Backstrom.
Like the Capitals, it’s a pretty easy choice for the Golden Knights. He owns three Cup rings already and he’s been a huge reason for their success this season, which is why Marc-Andre Fleury will get the Cup from his former Penguins teammate. Fleury had to watch the last two Penguins titles from the bench as Matt Murray led them to glory. Now he gets a shot at winning his third straight title and could be be the goaltender who gets mobbed after the final buzzer in the clinching game.
Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights.
The Vegas Golden Knights are a veritable gold mine of redemption stories.
Then again, one person’s “redemption” can be another person’s “revenge.” In considering the construction of the Golden Knights’ roster, some of the biggest hits feel like GM George McPhee’s revenge for the waves of Filip Forsberg jokes he absorbed between his 2014 firing and this unlikely run to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.
Optimizing the returns of the expansion draft is one of the things that stand out about McPhee’s work.
It’s one thing to merely select the best player available, or the best option available (if the best player’s contract makes him a bad choice). The Golden Knights leveraged other teams’ fears of losing their best unprotected players to set this team up for the present and future with draft picks and high-potential pieces. There was even an element of exploiting teams’ mistakes of the past, as Vegas sweetened its takeaways by absorbing other GMs’ mistakes, such as David Clarkson‘s contract.
Let’s take a long look at how the Golden Knights were built, and also realize that there’s still plenty of building to do … but in a very good way.
The good stuff that doesn’t really matter right now
Let’s face it. The Golden Knights weren’t necessarily built with 2017-18 at the forefront of their brains.
Instead, Vegas stockpiled a slew of draft picks to 1) agree not to select unprotected players or 2) to trade some of their picks to teams after the draft. Oh yeah, and they also received a pick in that Panthers situation … but that’s its own category.
Back in June 2017, the easiest way to picture the Golden Knights exceeding expectations revolved around career-best work from Marc-Andre Fleury. He’s delivered on that dream, authoring his best work in the regular season and the playoffs. Sometimes Fleury’s looked superhuman.
But one of the beautiful things for Vegas was that they didn’t always ride that train. “The Flower” was fantastic, yet injuries limited him to just 46 regular-season games, and other goalies got hurt, too. They still easily won the Pacific Division.
Some of the other established names followed a similar pattern.
James Neal and David Perron were slated to be key figures for Vegas, and they delivered. Still, those who expected Neal to be easily Vegas’ most dangerous scorer ended up being wrong (at least after a ridiculous start for Neal). Neal was good, yet an unlikely first line emerged thanks to a few factors …
Karlsson is to Forsberg …
In this deconstruction of the Capitals’ construction, it was noted that people have been joking about the Filip Forsberg trade is a frequent punchline when discussing George McPhee. The veteran executive emphatically proved that he learned his lesson, and applied that lesson to leveraging other GMs into submission.
When McPhee flipped Forsberg for Martin Erat, his Capitals were hoping to get over the hump for a playoff run, and management misdiagnosed Forsberg’s potential. Similar situations played themselves out before, during, and after the expansion draft.
While Forsberg had yet to get to the NHL level with Washington, William Karlsson showed little more than potential (and a deadly hair flip) with Columbus. Instead, the Blue Jackets bribed McPhee not to take players like Joonas Korpisalo or Josh Anderson, not realizing that Karlsson would be Vegas’ Forsberg.
Again, that was an extreme case, but not the only one. The Wild gave Vegas Alex Tuch so they’d select Erik Haula. Tuch looks slick and Haula barely missed a 30-goal season. That stings, but Minnesota didn’t want to lose someone like Mathew Dumba, and McPhee gleefully exploited that, with successes even he probably didn’t fully comprehend.
Sometimes there were ulterior motives like shedding some bad contracts (to be fair to Columbus, getting rid of Clarkson was huge; Shea Theodore was the treasure they unearthed by taking on Clayton Stoner from Anaheim). Sometimes the gains were more modest, or more futures-oriented.
Either way, the Golden Knights wouldn’t be nearly as dynamic if McPhee didn’t supplement expansion draft selections with shrewd side deals. Especially …
Skip this inevitable section, Tallon and Panthers fans
An amalgamation of many of those factors in the punchline-iest element of all, as the Florida Panthers happily gave Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith to Vegas. Two-thirds of a top line that was able to hang with and sometimes outplay lines headed by Anze Kopitar, Logan Couture/Joe Pavelski, and the Jets’ beastly offerings was gladly given up. It was baffling then, and it’s aged like the opposite of wine (unless you enjoy making jokes on social media).
Counter-intuitive as it may seem, there's been talk FLA was trying to move both Marchessault and Smith even before VGK entered the picture.
To sweeten the deal(s), consider that one of Florida’s defenses (Reilly Smith’s contract) probably helped the Golden Knights sign Marchessault to a team-friendly extension, as they both will carry $5 million cap hits. (Smith’s already was there, while Marchessault’s kicks in next season.)
You have to dig pretty deep to find other explanations. Maybe it helped Florida afford a very nice free agent in Evgenii Dadonov? Yeah, that’s about it. All McPhee could do was thank any appropriate deities and let Tallon shoot himself in the foot. Twice.
Dale Tallon des @FlaPanthers: "Analytics took a more important place in the game. We made some mistakes… and thank god I'm back" #NHL100
Sometimes, like with the Golden Knights landing Nate Schmidt, it was about a team having to make painful choices about who to expose, and that player taking off even more than expected in Vegas. There are a lot of selections and situations that look astounding in hindsight, and some deserve the extra ribbing. No situation really stands at the level of unforced errors quite like what the Panthers managed with those self-destructive moves, though.
/Takes a second to recover from just how mind-blowing that all still seems.
Speaking of former Panthers
Of course, the Golden Knights aren’t just boosted by former Panthers players.
Gerard Gallant stands as a possible unanimous choice for the Jack Adams Award a season after that embarrassing “fired and sent away in a taxi cab” fracas with Florida.
It’s honestly surprising that Gallant – someone who allegedly clashed with “The Computer Boys” in Florida during Tallon’s blink of time out of control – is the same coach who’s allowed this team to play breathtaking, aggressive hockey. This is – dare I say it? – the sort of hockey that “The Computer Boys” likely would have stumped for.
Maybe Gallant was always prescient enough to realize that these players would truly flourish if you gave them more opportunities and longer leashes to make mistakes. Maybe it was a “nothing to lose” gambit. Or perhaps he took some lessons to heart after what must have been a humbling experience in Florida.
Either way, Gallant’s been a huge part of the winner Vegas has built, and he’s a mere four wins from a Stanley Cup.
A fairly clean slate
You could mix in a little “greed is good” into this recipe, as UFAs such as James Neal and David Perron are fighting for new deals. Fleury really isn’t that far away either (he could sign an extension in July), and plenty of other players are fighting to prove their worth in the NHL. Marchessault was in a contract year before getting his extension in January, too.
Another genius element of Vegas, one that other teams must envy, is that they aren’t weighed down by a bunch of problem contracts.
Yes, they took on the albatross deals of Clarkson and Mikhail Grabovski, yet those can a) be scuttled off to Robidas Island (the LTIR) and b) they aren’t going to last long. This team isn’t just set up for a promising future because of a bounty of draft picks; they also have the sort of cap room to be credible rumored destinations for big names like Erik Karlsson and John Tavares.
That actually bring us to one of the few mistakes, at least in ignoring the Vadim Shipachyov saga: trading three prominent draft picks for Tomas Tatar.
As of this moment, that seems like a big gaffe and the NHL’s revenge for the expansion draft. Still, it’s plausible that the Golden Knights might salvage this situation. Heck, for all we know, maybe Tatar will end up providing an unexpected boost as soon as the 2018 Stanley Cup Final?
Stranger things have happened … like, you know, an expansion team winning its division and making it all the way to the final round in its first season.
No doubt about it, the Golden Knights have enjoyed some luck. Marc-Andre Fleury’s unlikely to sustain this level of play (no insult to MAF, few goalies could), and that magic may even begin to run out during Game 1 on Monday. William Karlsson probably won’t score on almost a quarter of his shots on goal next regular season.
Even if the Golden Knights take a step back, the point is that this team is constructed with remarkable skill and foresight.
You don’t even need to use the “for an expansion team” caveat this season, and there’s a chance you won’t need to going further, either. This management team could very well ride this hot hand into the future.