Our resident hockey Maven, Stan Fischler, shares his thoughts on the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
To those who have just arrived from a Distant Planet, know this:
THE VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS WILL BE PLAYING THE WASHINGTON CAPITALS FOR THE STANLEY CUP.
The Maven puts these in Caps not because the Capitals will win the Stanley Cup, but rather to emphasize to newcomers that it’s not a joke nor a typographical error.
Yes, the NHL’s brand new team from Nevada has reached the final round in pursuit of hockey’s most coveted prize.
To call this feat astounding would be the understatement of the half-century. It’s so far beyond belief, you’d think 100 of Hollywood’s best script-writers had penned the Knights Saga.
Then, they’d all be fired because what has happened between October and Now is, well, even beyond The Maven’s highest compliment, A-Number-One-Yankee-Doodle-Ipsy-Pipsy.
Even more astonishing is the belief that, yessiree, Bob, the Knights could very well win the darn thing. One trusty scout I know, Gus Vic, even tells me how.
“What the Capitals are going to find,” Vic explained, “is that the Knights’ speed, work ethic, tenacity, and discipline is going to be very hard to handle.
“Vegas’ neutral zone play is positively suffocating and gives the impression that the Knights have eight players on the ice while protecting leads.”
Hey, Sin City’s favorite team didn’t finish with the fifth best record — out of 31 — in the league for nothing. Matter of fact they finished one ahead of the very team they’ll be hosting Monday night at T-Mobile Arena.
Now that we have the unbelievability of coach Gerard Gallant‘s team taken care of, it’s worth noting that Barry Trotz coached a fabulously gutsy outfit which underlined that point in their the seven-game triumph over Tampa Bay.
Plus, the Caps boast the NHL’s Rocket Richard Trophy-winner in Alex (49 Red Lights) Ovechkin and a well-balanced team that features size, speed and savvy.
Washington’s goalie Braden Holtby enters the Final Round with two straight shutouts which is a feat that only can be beaten by three goose-eggs.
Then again, Vegas goaltending headliner, Marc-Andre Fleury has been the most consistently best post-season stopper in every one of the previous three series.
Here’s The Maven’s Scouting Report, starting with the visiting team:
OFFENSE: A season earlier they averaged 3.18 goals per game and this year it was 3.12. What’s more, they stayed close even after losing Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson up front. After three 50-goal-seasons, Ovechkin slumped last year with 33 goals and 69 points. But what a rebound this term — 49 goals, 38 assists for 87 points. So far in the playoffs, Captain Ovi has totaled 12 goals and 10 assists for 22 points; slotting him second in goals and points.
The beauty part of the Caps attack is the emergence of other potent producers. Evgeny Kuznetsov has been a whiz-bang, ahead of Ovi by two points. Nicklas Backstrom and defenseman John Carlson also have provided pizazz. Not to be overlooked is the third man on the first line, Tom Wilson, who is a surprisingly effective point-getter despite his penchant for punching. Lars Eller, Chandler Stevenson, and Devante Smith-Pelly have delivered some effective work up front.
DEFENSE: Minus Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt and Kevin Shattenkirk, the Caps still have survived. The response has been the ever-tenacious Brooks (Plus 15 in 19 playoff games) Orpik, Carlson’s career year along with Dimitry Orlov as well as Matt Niskanen and rookie Christian Djoos. All things considered, it’s not a knock-your-eyes-out blueline corps, but it got the Caps to the Final; didn’t it?
GOALTENDING: When it came to a Cup challenge, Braden Holtby always seemed to have his head in Nowheresville. So mediocre was his finish to the regular season, Trotz benched him in the first two games of round one — both losses — in favor of Philipp Grubauer; finally inserting Holtby in the third period of Game Two. Since then Braden has been nothing short of brilliant, especially out-goaling Andrei Vasilevskiy in the third round. He enters the Final having pitched two consecutive shutouts.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Since the playoffs began, Washington has featured the second-best power play (28.8 percent). However, their penalty-killing has been mediocre, but don’t tell that to the Lightning who went Oh-For-One in Game Seven.
INTANGIBLES: Head coach Trotz has surrounded himself with Grade A aides. These include Todd Reirden, Lane Lambert, and Blaine Forsythe. Consulting the goalies is the ever-popular and efficient Mitch Korn.
X-FACTORS: If he can stay out of the penalty box or the Player Safety Sinbin, Wilson brings a rare blend of toughness as well as the ability to work well with Captain Ovi. Orpik has playoff experience and is playing his best post-season hockey.
THE BRASS: G.M. Brian MacLellan has managed to lose name players on offense and defense yet supplement the lineup with lesser knowns, but with producers like young Chandler Stevenson. Trotz, whose contract runs out, should get an extension based on his superior work behind the bench.
OFFENSE: Experts will tell you that the toughest part of an Expansion Draft is finding a semblance of offense, but G.M. George McPhee pulled off a few miracles. Jonathan Marchessault and James Neal already were known for their Red-Light Ability and considered main drivers for goals. But nobody figured on William Karlsson, who tallied 43 goals in the regular season and is second on the Knights in the playoffs with six, two behind Marchessault. Reilly Smith, ex-of Florida, is no slouch, leading the team with 14 helpers and second most in points for his club. Huge in more ways than one, (6-4) Alex Tuch has been an energetic left wing who’s been a force physically and productively. Sneaky good, Erik Haula may not be that big, but he’s quick and has good hands. Pittsburgh’s loss is Vegas’ gain in monstrous Ryan Reaves, who scored the winning goal in Game Five of the Western Final against Winnipeg.
DEFENSE: Granted it’s a No-Name Defense but when you X-Ray the results, you can better appreciate the work of several blueliners. To wit: Nate Schmidt, Brayden McNabb, Shea Theodore, Derek Engelland, Luca Sbisa and Colin Miller. Ex-Devil Jon Merrill, Brad Hunt, and Jason Garrison provide depth. Put ’em all together and you get a solid unit that never should be underestimated.
GOALTENDING: Even though he’s already won three Cups, Marc-Andre Fleury has lifted his game to a stratospheric level never achieved in Pittsburgh. Amazingly, at the season’s start, he was injured. Yet the Knights survived with a merry-go-round of goalies including Malcolm Subban, Maxime Lagace, and Oscar Dansk. Fleury has been more than expert between the pipes. He’s not only the face of the franchise but also its inspiration.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Nothing very special about the power play — eleventh in the regular season and so far tenth in the playoffs. Likewise, the penalty kill has been all right but hardly perfect. Karlsson and Smith have been the primary PP and PK fellows. Tuch’s size is a PP asset.
INTANGIBLES: The odds posted against Vegas winning the Cup stood at 500-1 last September in some quarters and 200-1 in The Hockey News. The point is that this club now is playing with house money. Ergo: they’ve got nothing to prove and nothing to lose.
ROOKIES: Tuch was a 2014 first-rounder who has a blend of skill skating and work ethic. Tomas Nosek is another who bears watching.
X-FACTOR: Fourth-liner Ryan Carpenter quietly has had an impact on the offense as a grinder. David Perron brings veteran experience and is quietly effective doing the little things necessary for a winner.
THE BRASS: George McPhee will be a landslide winner of the Best G.M. Award while ditto for Gerard Gallant as coach
HOW THE CAPITALS CAN WIN THE CUP:
Riding the momentum from their startling comeback against Tampa, Washington is motivated beyond all reason.
Led by the super-dynamic Ovi who almost can taste the champagne-on-ice and who’s aces with his every shift on the ice.
If Holtby maintains his hermetically-sealed crease as he did in Games Six and Seven, it’s in the bag for Trotz and Company.
Finally, this from scout Vic: “By playing a heavy, disciplined chip and chase game throughout the series, it would force Vegas out of the comfort of the neutral zone.”
Washington must get pucks in deep; don’t get caught at the blue line.
HOW THE KNIGHTS CAN WIN THE CUP:
Vegas skaters have to pound the foe. So far no team has been able to keep up with the Knights’ relentless forecheck. Their three-zone pressure package enables them to be hellbent on turnovers and transition hockey.
Thanks to Gallant, the club has had full buy-in through the regular season and playoffs. Not to be redundant, but Gerard has pulled off the most outstanding single-season coaching job in NHL history — as well in all of professional sports!
How does one beat a Cinderella story that goes on and on and on? Another thought — the team with the best Bottom Six often wins. Vegas has the topper in that realm.
THE MAVEN’S PICK: Washington in six; thanks to Ovechkin, Holtby, and Carlson!