Capitals-Golden Knights tale of the tape: Full breakdown and picks

Greg Wyshynski: So which occurrence is the greater harbinger of the apocalypse: Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals winning the Stanley Cup, or an expansion team winning the Stanley Cup?

Emily Kaplan: The Capitals exorcising their demons feels cathartic to me. We always knew Ovi & Co. had the talent — it really was just a matter of time. The Golden Knights, on the other hand, had 500-1 odds. Even their own management didn’t think they could win like this for another few years.

Wyshynski: All right, let’s get to the previewing, as we break down the Stanley Cup Final between the [checks notes] Washington Capitals and the [rechecks notes] Vegas Golden Knights [checks into an asylum].


First line

Wyshynski: The Golden Knights’ top three scorers, and their only scorers in double digits, are all found on their top line: Jonathan Marchessault (eight goals, 10 assists), Reilly Smith (two goals, 14 assists) and William Karlsson (six goals, seven assists), the latter being the only member of the line who wasn’t gift-wrapped by Panthers GM Dale Tallon. The Capitals’ top two scorers are on their top line: Evgeny Kuznetsov (11 goals, 13 assists) and Alex Ovechkin (12 goals, 10 assists). Tom Wilson, whom you might remember from a fight in Game 7, brings physicality and some offense (three goals, eight assists).

Kaplan: The Golden Knights’ top line paced this offense for so much of the season (92 goals among the three), but let’s not forget Vegas has defensive prowess, too. We should celebrate its success. But I have a hard time picking against a line featuring Alex Ovechkin — whose 13 straight seasons of pregame chicken, cream sauce and pasta dinners have been carb-loading him for this one epic playoff run. Oh, and Kuznetsov has been spectacular.

Wyshynski: Oh, I have zero problem picking against that line, because the Golden Knights’ top trio makes more magic than David Copperfield and Criss Angel having a wizard battle. (Sorry … “illusionist” battle.) No one has been able to slow it yet, and I think it’ll continue to be the pulsating heart of the Vegas offense.

Advantage: Even

Depth

Kaplan: The Capitals flex scoring talent on their second line — Backstrom is above a point-per-game pace, followed by T.J. Oshie (six goals, seven assists). James Neal has nine points in 15 games for Vegas; Erik Haula and David Perron have only seven points apiece. The bottom six for both teams are interchangeable, though Vegas boasts a six-goal scorer in these playoffs in third-liner Alex Tuch, as well as some strong defensive specialists, such as penalty-killing studs Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Tomas Nosek.

Wyshynski: I’ll give the nod to the Capitals here. Nicklas Backstrom has gotten better in every game, allowing the Caps to move Lars Eller back to the third line. If Andre Burakovsky is going to start contributing as he did in Game 7, that tips the scales even more. While I acknowledge the Knights have used their forward depth to skate three opponents into the ground, I think the Capitals can match their pace.

Kaplan: One thing I loved about the Golden Knights all season was that Gerard Gallant could roll four lines, with little regard to matchups. Yes, Gallant relies a little extra on his first line (especially Karlsson, who plays, and excels, in all situations), but you really need four lines to match up against Vegas. I’m not terribly impressed with Washington’s fourth line, though it seems to keep having big moments. I think Greg is right in that this comes down to the talent sprinkled on Washington’s second and third lines, which are superior to Vegas’ corresponding lines.

Advantage: Capitals

Defense

Wyshynski: John Carlson is, as the kids say, “gonna get paid.” The Capitals’ leader in ice time (25:59 per game) has 16 points in 19 games, with 10 of them on the power play. He’s paired with Michal Kempny. Dmitry Orlov has been a puck-moving revelation for Washington, but partner Matt Niskanen has been inconsistent. Veteran Brooks Orpik, a physical presence against Tampa, is on the third pairing with Christian Djoos. The Knights’ ice-time leader is an old friend of the Caps: Nate Schmidt, whom they lost in the expansion draft. He’s typically paired with Brayden McNabb. Deryk Engelland and Shea Theodore (seven points) form a solid duo. Colin Miller and Luca Sbisa worked together in the conference finals.

Kaplan: Ah, the age-old debate about quantity versus quality. The Golden Knights’ shtick all season is that they don’t have one defenseman who profiles as a shutdown No. 1, but they have plenty of men who are capable. Meanwhile, the Caps certainly have the best top-end talent in Carlson (and a solid second pairing) but drop off after that. As much as we champion depth in the playoffs, I don’t see Washington’s bottom guys as such a liability that I can’t pick their group.

Wyshynski: The Capitals’ defensive effort in the past two series has been a result of a total-team effort and some outstanding goaltending. Which is a polite way of saying I think their blue line can be taken advantage of if the Knights get their cycle going. Meanwhile, I’ve admired all season how quickly the Vegas blue line plays. Not that they’re all burners like Schmidt, but that they move the puck smartly and rapidly. They get my pick.

Advantage: Even

Goaltending

Kaplan: What more is there to say about Marc-Andre Fleury this postseason? His otherworldly stats — .947 save percentage, 1.68 goals-against average — have stolen a few games. Rested after playing only 46 games this regular season, Fleury is in the Stanley Cup Final for the third straight season and fifth time overall. Meanwhile, Braden Holtby shook off an early goalie controversy (or was that just coach Barry Trotz trying to light a fire under his starter?) to post solid numbers: .924 save percentage, 2.04 GAA. The 2016 Vezina Trophy winner enters the Final after two straight shutouts.

Wyshynski: The fact that the Final Boss — in gaming parlance — for the Capitals is Fleury, who had a hand in two of the Penguins’ three series wins over Ovechkin’s Capitals, is just delicious. And let’s face it: Even with Braden Holtby having the postseason of his life — those two shutouts made him only the fifth goalie in NHL history to blank a foe in Games 6 and 7 — there’s no way I can put him ahead of a goalie with an obscene .947 save percentage like Fleury.

Kaplan: All right, it doesn’t look like there’s too much of an argument here. Nobody is picking against The Flower.

Advantage: Golden Knights

Special teams

Wyshynski: The Capitals’ power play is second in the playoffs at 28.8 percent on 59 opportunities. The Knights are at 17.6 percent on 51 opportunities. The Vegas penalty kill has been solid at 82.5 percent on 57 times short-handed. The Capitals are at 75.4 percent on 61 times shorthanded, although, in fairness, they faced two of the top three power plays in the NHL in Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay.

Kaplan: I think the most interesting matchup is Washington’s lethal power play against the Golden Knights’ kill. Vegas should be encouraged that it kept Ovechkin’s sweet-spot clone, Patrik Laine (who had three more power-play goals than Ovechkin this season), mostly in check on the man advantage in the Western Conference finals.

Wyshynski: This is as significant an advantage as the Capitals have in this series. Their power play is extremely hard to handle. With Ovechkin looming in his spot, that opens up the slot area for Oshie, who has five power-play goals in the playoffs. And if he doesn’t pull the trigger, the Capitals can set up a double screen for Carlson. Their power play is clicking, and their penalty kill has been honing its craft against elite talent for two rounds.

Advantage: Capitals

Health

Kaplan: The Golden Knights are managing an injury to energy forward William Carrier; the bottom-six winger has not played since May 4 during the San Jose series, though he has resumed skating. Backup goaltender Malcolm Subban has also been sidelined, making Maxime Lagace the Golden Knights’ No. 2. After welcoming Backstrom back from a four-game absence due to a hand injury, the Capitals are healthy.

Wyshynski: The Capitals have everybody back and have shown they can handle significant absences, whether it’s due to injury (Burakovsky, Backstrom) or being suspended after injuring others (Wilson).

Kaplan: Vegas has fared just fine without Carrier, notably in a series against a bruising team such as the Jets. As long as Fleury stays healthy, the backup situation shouldn’t matter for the Knights; Lagace was one of the many goalies who admirably steadied the ship in Fleury’s absence this season, though his numbers aren’t terrific (.867 save percentage, 3.92 GAA in 16 appearances, four of them starts). All of that said, the Caps have everyone available, so they get the nod.

Advantage: Capitals

Coaching

Wyshynski: Washington’s Barry Trotz coached 1,524 regular-season games and 108 more in the playoffs before getting the opportunity to coach in the Stanley Cup Final. Vegas’ Gerard Gallant will likely run away with the Jack Adams award this season after taking a bunch of guys with “Hi, My Name Is” stickers and somehow molding them into a Western Conference champion.

Kaplan: The Golden Knights excelled this season because they could play freely. Guys didn’t hold on to their sticks as tight. Video sessions weren’t as long. As James Neal told me of his coach during the season, “He doesn’t complicate anything.” Gallant has stayed true to form these playoffs; sure he has had to play a little line salad, but — on brand for their season — everything has worked out swimmingly.

Wyshynski: I’ve never been a big Trotz fan in the playoffs and thought his decision to sit Holtby at the start of the first round was daft. But he outcoached Mike Sullivan and Jon Cooper in consecutive rounds, to the point where the latter coach was so obsessed with matchups that his best offensive players didn’t see enough ice in Game 7. But we all know why he gets the nod here: the hot lap before Game 7, as the 55-year-old coach opened practice with a wind sprint around the rink. They didn’t even have to play the game after that, it was so in the bag.

Advantage: Even

Will of the hockey gods

Kaplan: The Capitals are the team of manifest destiny; with enough talent and will, it was inevitable they would conquer all of the Eastern Conference and end up here. The Golden Knights? On the surface, they’re a team for those of us who crave instant gratification, usually something the hockey gods frown upon (the hockey gods, for example, are never believers in high shooting percentages). That said, the Golden Knights’ ascent is a boon for the sport’s visibility, and the roster is filled with players who were often overlooked, but persisted to work hard and bide their time to make it here. The hockey gods like that.

Wyshynski: It’s a classic conundrum for those of us who believe, wholeheartedly, in the puck supernatural. Have the hockey gods, through odd bounces and good fortune, decided that the torture is over for the Capitals and Ovechkin? Or are the hockey gods mischievous, using the Golden Knights as an enduring lesson about the folly of player-personnel decisions? After deep thought and prayers, I feel it’s both. However, the lesson has already been learned, so the Capitals have the hockey gods’ favor. Why else would this journey end with a series against George McPhee and Marc-Andre Fleury?

Advantage: Capitals

Series picks

Wyshynski: Capitals in six.

Kaplan: Golden Knights in seven.

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