There are three players in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final who have reached the championship series before, all of them former Pittsburgh Penguins.
On the Vegas Golden Knights, the experience is split between Marc-Andre Fleury and James Neal. The former has three rings in four Cup Final roster appearances for the Penguins, starting in 2008 and 2009 before ceding the job to Matt Murray for 2016 and 2017. Neal played six SCF games last year with the Nashville Predators against his former Pittsburgh team of four seasons and saw some old pals—including Fleury—lift the Cup yet again while he still searches for his first.
On the Washington Capitals, there is Brooks Orpik. Like Fleury, he hasn’t played with the coveted trophy looking on since that 2009 series when the Penguins defeated the Detroit Red Wings a year after losing to them in the Final.
But this year, when it is all said and done, there will be just one former champion who gets the chance to pop some champagne and catch up with the old trophy, and whom that will be has yet to be decided. Instead, this year is all about the new and the dramatic. Before the much-anticipated puck drop and our giddy faces become glued to the action, let’s break down what is guaranteed to be a memorable matchup.
Seeing as the Golden Knights are just a regular-season old and in the opposite conference, they have played the Capitals just twice, collecting wins on both occasions. The first was a 3-0 shutout from Fleury back in December in which all three goals were scored within the first 15 minutes of the game. Playing in front of their home crowd at T-Mobile Arena, the Knights jumped early with 17 shots in the first period, but Washington limited its opponent to just five shots in the second period and six in the third.
The second matchup was a 4-3 comeback win in February that saw Vegas responding to all three of Washington’s goals and then sealing it with a game-winner from Alex Tuch. “Every time you turn the puck over, they come right back down your throat,” goaltender Philipp Grubauer said after the loss.
Other than the Pittsburgh squad who drafted him back in 2003, there is probably no other team in the Eastern Conference that Fleury is more familiar with than the Capitals. Of course, there are many factors that prevented Washington from moving this far in the postseason for the last 20 years, but Fleury has undoubtedly been one of them, beaten Alex Ovechkin and Co. twice.
“I thought I was done with them for a little bit,” Fleury said. Nah man, they’re back.
The veteran goalie didn’t start the previous two Stanley Cup Finals, but he was called upon when Penguins goalie Matt Murray injured himself before Game 1 of the first round in 2017. As Flower led the Pens past the Columbus Blue Jackets, he was presented with a familiar foe in Round 2 in the Capitals. Pittsburgh took down the 2017 Presidents’ Trophy winner in a gritty seven-game series that was capped off with a 2-0 shutout by Fleury, but that series wasn’t always so pretty for him. After allowing only two goals in three of the first four games, Fleury gave up nine goals between Games 5 and 6, with Andre Burakovsky responsible for a third of those.
Fleury has a 30-18-2 all-time record against the Capitals, but has been tormented by Ovechkin along the way, who has 32 goals against the netminder, including 10 in the postseason. Fleury has a .947 save percentage this postseason, with a 1.68 GAA, making it his best playoff run yet.
Heading down to the other end of the ice and tapping into our short-term memory we are reminded that Braden Holtby was not Washington’s starting goalkeeper at the start of this postseason. After a career-worst season that saw a .907 save-percentage and 2.99 GAA from Holtby, coach Barry Trotz ultimately decided to start Grubauer when Round 1 began against the Blue Jackets. Despite his dismal season, the decision left many heads over-scratched as they contemplated the idea of leaving the 2016 Vezina winner on the bench.
Goalie carousels have plagued the Capitals in postseasons past, but Trotz hasn’t been afraid of making adjustments this year and it has paid off. After 4-3 overtime loss in Game 1 and giving up 4 goals in two periods in Game 2, Grubauer was replaced by Holtby, who has elevated his play this postseason from his forgettable regular season appearances. Holtby is at .924 these playoffs in 18 appearances (17 starts).
Ovechkin has been nothing short of impressive so far these playoffs. With 22 points in 19 playoff games, this has been one of his most prolific postseasons yet, slightly off pace from his 21 points in 14 games back in 2009. But Washington has six other players boasting double-digit point totals: Evgeny Kuznetsov with a league-leading 24, Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson have 16 apiece, T.J. Oshie clocks in at 15, Lars Eller at 14 and Tom Wilson at 12. Kuznetsov has a 10-game point streak to carry into Monday and is averaging 4.1 shots per game.
The Golden Knights have been outshot 505-473 in 15 playoff games, but have still slid by with just three losses thanks to a few breakout stars. Jonathan Marchessault has been the biggest contributor, with 64 SOG and 18 points (eight goals, 10 assists) while linemates Reilly Smith (16 points) and William Karlsson (13) have been no slouches either, but Tuch has been the sharpest shooter on the team. Tuch, who has two game-winning goals, has a team-leading 20.7 shooting percentage.
While there has been a ton of talk about Flower Power and the resurgence of Holtby, the defense supporting them should not go unnoticed. After not earning consistent ice time in Washington last season, defenseman Nate Schmidt, paired with Brayden McNabb, has been a key player for Vegas this year with a plus-7 and a team-leading 24:53 minutes per game. Collectively, Vegas has allowed just 27 goals this postseason, an average 1.87 per game.
“These guys are a big part of our success,” Fleury said of his blueliners. “We’re well balanced, we got some veteran guys, some younger guys, got some offensive guys, some defensive guys playing together. Those guys have been rallying all playoffs, trying to help me out, blocking shots and letting me see the puck, so it’s been a lot of fun.”
As the only Cup Final veteran, Orpik will certainly be leaned on for guidance in Washington, but at 37-years-old he’s not the most impressive defenseman the Capitals have. While Carlson boasts some pretty offensive numbers (see above), he has also been crucial for the Caps’ defense. Averaging 26 minutes these playoffs, the dynamic defenseman is plus-9 and has helped partner Michal Kempny find his place on the ice. Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov have also been a solid pairing for Washington, each notching eight points and combining for 69 hits and 81 blocked shots.
Overall, things seem relatively healthy on both fronts (though who knows who could be playing with a torn MCL or something). Forward William Carrier has not played since May 4 for the Golden Knights, but is expected to be active for the Final. “I expect yes, but I don’t know when,” coach Gerard Gallant said of Carrier’s availability. “He skated the last couple of days and is feeling better. We’ll take it one game at a time and see where we’re at.”
Backstrom returned from a hand injury sustained in Round 2 and has been playing well, but his right index finger seems to be a bit icky still. Both Orpik and Devante Smith-Pelly were banged up in Game 7 against Tampa Bay. Orpik, who absorbed a massive hit from Cedric Paquette, returned in that game. Smith-Pelly’s status isn’t known after taking a puck to his neck in the big win, but he practiced with the team on Saturday.
CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS
603: Washington has 603 total hits these playoffs, while Vegas has 595, the top two teams in the postseason. Both have amped up their physical play in recent weeks, meaning this series could see bruises pile up on top of bruises.
28.8: The Capitals’ power play takes the advantage this series at 28.8%. But Vegas’ 82.5% kill rate will be a stifling act to play against.
8: Washington has somehow played better on the road than it has at home, earning two-thirds of its wins in its snazzy white jerseys this postseason.
6: Five of the last six Stanley Cup Finals have needed exactly six games to determine a winner. We could be gifted with a Las Vegas Strip version of the Hollywood ending out West, or a long-awaited victory for a destined Hall of Famer in the East. This Final is dripping with drama before it even begins.