Memorial Day in the United States will see the traditional meeting of ‘East v West’ facing off, as the 2018 Stanley Cup Finals gets underway with the Western Conference Champions Vegas Golden Knights taking on the Eastern Conference champions the Washington Capitals. In what will be one of the most fascinating finals in recent times, one thing is for sure about this year’s final and that is a new name will be etched onto ‘Lord Stanley’s’ trophy with both sides looking to land their first-ever Stanley Cup triumph.
The two conference champions met twice over the regular season, with the Golden Knights prevailing both times as they won 4-3 on Christmas Eve in Washington and then shut the Capitals out 3-0 in Las Vegas back in early February. Something that both sides have shown in their quest for the cup is not having any ‘fear’ and with the two sides facing different sorts of adversity in their respective playoffs runs, as the two have come through it all.
For the Vegas Golden Knights, they had to go through two teams with plenty of Stanley Cup experience and Cup final credentials to boot in the Los Angeles Kings and the San Jose Sharks. There is an argument to say that the playoffs in the Western Conference side of things have been rather poor, with two of the first round matches seeing ‘clean sweeps’ happening and have occurred more over the past three years.
The flip side to that argument is that since the Lockout season of 2005, the West have lifted the Stanley Cup more often than their Eastern counterparts have, as the West hold a 7-5 advantage, though this was prior to the Detroit Red Wings moving over to the East due to the alignment change in 2012-13 season. This year though sees one of the most unpredictable Stanley Cup Finals for a long time and hasn’t a clear odds-on favourite.
For what has seen a number of first’s for the new boys to the National Hockey League this season, the Golden Knights opened up their first-ever playoff series at home at the T-Mobile Arena against the former champions from 2012 and 2014 in the Los Angeles Kings. It has to be said, that the series was a let-down and lacked any real drama at all, with the only note of the short series being an overtime winner in game two for Vegas.
After what was a walkover against the Kings in the first round, the Knights then headed north of Los Angeles and another Californian side in San Jose. The series started much in the same vein as the previous one for Vegas, as they demolished the Sharks 7-0 in the opener and looked like the home side was going to be too strong.
Game two saw Logan Couture of San Jose netting a game-winner in second overtime to inflict a 4-3 loss on the Golden Knights before Vegas returned the favour in game three with a 4-3 win in overtime to take a 2-1 series lead. A shutout by San Jose tied the series at 2-2, however, two strong performances by the Golden Knights in games five and six culminated in a 28-save shutout for Marc-Andre Fleury and moved the Vegas Golden Knights to their first Western finals.
The Western Conference finals pitted the Golden Knights against another side for who the conference finals was a new experience as well, in the Winnipeg Jets. The remaining Canadian side in these playoffs took the series opener at home with a 4-2 win, while in game two the Golden Knights hit back with a 3-1 win as the series shifted to ‘Sin City’.
Winnipeg then found themselves coming up against a brick wall in Marc-Andre Fleury and saw the Canadian goalie proving to be a game and series winner on his own with a couple of brilliant performances between the pipes.
Back to back wins at the T-Mobile Arena saw the Golden Knights needing just one more victory to reach their first Stanley Cup final and they would have to close the series out on the road in a noisy and passionate Winnipeg building. A boisterous crowd in Manitoba was silenced when Alex Tuch got Vegas on the board early until the Jets drew level late on in the first through Josh Morrissey.
Midway through the second, Ryan Reaves scored what turned out to be the series-clinching goal for the Golden Knights, while Fleury was forced into making some important saves late on in the game to deny Winnipeg a tying goal and eliminated them from this years postseason.
Vegas has gone through these playoffs spreading the goals around and had made it very much a team effort in their run. Ex-Florida Panthers Center Jonathan Marchessault has been a key guy for the Golden Knights as he leads the way for his team with 18 points (8 goals, 10 assists) and has a plus/minus of +10 in their 15 games so far.
Meanwhile, right-winger Reilly Smith has posted 16 points (2 goals, 14 assists) and former Columbus Blue Jackets Center William Karlsson has also been outstanding for the Western champions, with the 25-year old Swede putting up 13 points (6 goals, 7 assists) and +9 too. It hasn’t just been their attack that has posted good numbers for Vegas, their defence has been rock solid too. It has seen them conceding just 27 goals, yet on the attack, the defence has tallied 16 strikes and accounts for 38% of the Knights goals.
Of course, though, the standout player of the postseason has been that of Marc- Andre Fleury between the pipes for his side, with Fleury posting a save percentage currently of (.947%) and also leads the way in the goalie standings with four shutouts.
In the Eastern Conference, the Washington Capitals will play in what is only their second Stanley Cup final in franchise history, following a 20-year wait since their last visit in the finals which ended in a sweep for the Detroit Red Wings back in the 1997-98 season.
Following a stuttering start to their playoffs campaign that almost saw them facing an elimination game against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round, the Caps’ bounced back with four straight wins to set-up a meeting with their arch-rivals in the Pittsburgh Penguins. In what turned out to be an unsurprisingly physical and brutal matchup between the sides, it saw the Capitals Tom Wilson being highlighted following a couple of ‘highly questionable’ big hits towards the heads of a couple of Penguins players in the space of two games.
In game two, a high shot on Pittsburgh’s Brian Dumoulin saw Wilson claiming after the game that he was ‘just backchecking’ on the hit, while the following game saw him making contact again to the head of another Pittsburgh player, this time in Zach Ashton-Reese and left the Penguins man with a broken jaw and concussion. The league handed out a three-game suspension and saw him forced to miss the rest of the series.
Washington though didn’t need him going forward, as they finally put their hoodoo against their rivals to bed. After suffering at the hands of Sidney Crosby, Evgeny Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury over the years, it saw another Evgeny coming to the fore in Kuznetsov, but this time, it was in the red of Washington. An overtime winner by the Russian in game six saw the Capitals advancing on to the Conference finals.
In the Conference finals, they faced the best side in the Eastern conference in Tampa Bay and saw an epic seven-game series between themselves and the Lightning. Both sides failed to win either of their home games in the first four games of the series and we had to wait for game five before a team could finally win on home ice.
Tampa Bay took a 3-2 series lead with them to D.C, but Braden Holtby would prove to be the key man late on in the series for Washington, as the netminder produced a couple of stunning performances to deny the Lightning and forced a game seven back in Tampa, where the Capitals defeated the Bolts’ to progress to the finals.
Looking at the numbers posted by Washington, Evgeny Kuznetsov is the Cap’s top scorer with 24 points (11 goals, 13 assists) to his name, while his fellow countryman in Alex Ovechkin, has 22 points (12 goals and 10 assists) as the two Russian have led the Capitals in the points scoring. Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson have backed them up with 16 points each, while T.J Oshie has 15 points in the postseason with 7 goals and 8 assists.
This final has a lot of interesting subplots to it. Such as, who will lift Lord Stanley’s Cup for the first time in their respective franchise’s history. Will Vegas become the first-ever expansion team to win the cup in their Inaugural season? – Can Washington break the ‘Fleury’ jinx that the netminder has over them in the playoffs gone by, plus can Fleury become the first goalie since Billy Smith of the New York Islanders sides of (1980-82) to win three straight Stanley Cups?
One thing for sure though, it should be a great finale to the NHL season and hopefully not a dull affair.