Uh. Wow. With due respect to the awesome Eastern Conference Final and the improbable Eastern Conference champion Washington Capitals, I’m going to make this all about the Vegas Golden Knights for a moment — I’ll get to the Caps in a bit.
We all know this is their inaugural season. Their arrival in Las Vegas, announced way back in 2016, was met with skepticism and confusion. Why would the NHL choose another desert market while a cash cow in Québec sits waiting? It didn’t seem to make any sense.
Flash forward to the expansion draft last year. The Golden Knights took second- and third- line scraps from each team, plus a few stars like James Neal and Marc-Andre Fleury. Their hodgepodge roster raised some eyebrows — the cast of misfits was laughed at. Hockey pundits and prognosticators saw them as a basement team. Few saw them even competing for the playoffs, much less sneaking in as a wild card.
Because the Golden Knights were a new team with shiny new uniforms, a dazzling new arena, and an untainted reputation on the ice, I watched more Knights games than any other team this year, save the Buffalo Sabres. With their improbable record in the first half of the season, a lot of skeptical heads were turned. This group, somehow, was lighting up the league, eventually popping into Presidents’ Trophy contention. It didn’t make any sense.
Except it did, if you watched the team. Whilst having no real superstars, the chemistry these guys had was undeniable. Castoffs became stars in their own right, driven, perhaps, to prove everyone’s naysaying of the team and franchise wrong. Even during a stretch without their star goaltender (and their second stringer… and their third stringer…), they persevered. Now, with Fleury back and healthy, they seem absolutely unstoppable.
This Golden Knights team, insofar as their playoff performance is concerned, reminds me a lot of the 2012 Los Angeles Kings. I know, I know. But humor me — through three rounds, those Kings were 12-2, and as the numbers necessarily show, this includes one sweep. The Knights are 12-3 this year, with a sweep of their own, but one six-game series as well. This is the best record in the playoffs by a mile: the Caps are 12-7 and the slain Lightning were 11-6. They’re also led by a seemingly unstoppable goaltender. After 12 wins, Jonathan Quick had a 0.946 Sv% and an absurd 1.54 GAA. Marc-Andre Fleury this year? 0.947 Sv%, with but a 1.68 GAA. We know how 2012 ended — the Kings went up 3-0 on the Devils, won the Stanley Cup in six games, and Jonathan Quick won the Conn Smythe Trophy. I’ll go into it below, but it sure looks like the Vegas Golden Knights will do very much what those Kings did, and they’ll have Marc-Andre Fleury, clear-cut Conn Smythe favourite, to thank for it.
RIP Bracket 2018. You lasted longer than my last few, but alas the Knights, who I’d embarrassingly picked to lose in the first round, just could not be stopped. At least deep in the playoffs, predictions are somewhat easier. Let’s see how I fared last round…
Lightning vs Capitals: Can you believe this? The Washington gorram Capitals are in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 20 years, and the first time in the Ovechkin era. After years and years of being the Cup favorite and flaming out spectacularly in the playoffs, here they are — they finally made it. And boy did they. After a set of road wins in Tampa, they headed home looking for a sweep at Capital One Arena; that is, until some boneheaded fan had Nick Backstrom sign a freakin’ broom when the series was not even half over. Way to go, dummy. The Lightning stormed back (heh) to take three in a row, looking as strong as ever in their quick dismantling of the Caps defense, especially on the power play, and absolutely stifling on the back end, at least until late in those games. Well, as has been typical of the Lightning of late, they went up 3-2 only to fall back down spectacularly, allowing the Caps to trounce them by a collective score of 7-0 in the final two games. That’s two (and change) straight shutouts for Braden Holtby, when it mattered most. So, it’s not hard to see these guys as a team of destiny. After everyone had discounted them because of their continual playoff failures, after letting the Penguins tie their series, after letting the Lightning take a lead in theirs… after all that, the Washington Capitals are your Eastern Conference Champions.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, being the last team who has won a Cup left standing, guarantee that we’ll have a brand new team win a Cup this year. I’m going to say it a few more times, because it’s rare and incredible and I can’t believe it. I think the Lightning will be fine in the long run. They’ve managed to rotate in some fresh youth to compensate for the pieces they’ve lost over the last few years, and all indications are that their goaltending and defense should stay solid for a while. Maybe, though, they should stop picking the New York Rangers for parts — there’s a reason they haven’t won a Cup in 25 years running…
2018-05-11; WSH 4, TBL 2
2018-05-13; WSH 6, TBL 2
2018-05-15; TBL 4, WSH 2
2018-05-17; TBL 4, WSH 2
2018-05-19; WSH 2, TBL 3
2018-05-21; TBL 0, WSH 3
2018-05-23; WSH 4, TBL 0
WSH defeats TBL: 4-3
Prediction: Lightning in 6 ☓☓
Jets vs Golden Knights: Ouch. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice (after not being fooled in the meantime), shame on me? My overconfidence and my faith in my Canadian friends were my weakness. And boy, was I cocky about Winnipeg. After a dominant Game One win, where the Jets went up 3-0 in the first 8 minutes of the first period, it felt like the Cup was already on its way back to Canada. Flash forward to today, and the Knights are in the Cup Final. Yeouch.
What happened? Marc-Andre Fleury happened. As I’ve already noted, he’s been absolutely outstanding all playoffs long. The offensive buzz-saw that was the Winnipeg Jets had no answer for his mastery in net. In the games subsequent to Game One, all Knights wins, it felt like Vegas was toying with Winnipeg. The Jets just could not score — but when they did, usually to tie the game because Vegas kept scoring early, the Knights would just take the lead back in short order. It was frustrating to watch as Jets bandwagoner, but, stepping retrospectively into the shoes of a Golden Knights or a neutral hockey fan, just incredible.
The combination of high-flying offense (to say nothing of the series winning goal scored by Ryan Reaves of all people) and the godlike goaltending of Fleury leaves the Jets staying home in just five (!) games. Good lord. I’m looking forward to next year, which according to The Hockey News is the Jets’ Cup year. After this simultaneously expected and surprising playoff run, I think they might be right on with their predictions.
That is, assuming this Golden Knights squad isn’t a dynasty or anything. Gneurshk.
2018-05-12; VGK 2, WPG 4
2018-05-14; VGK 3, WPG 1
2018-05-16; WPG 2, VGK 4
2018-05-18; WPG 2, VGK 3
2018-05-20; VGK 2, WPG 1
VGK defeats WPG: 4-1
Prediction: Jets in 6 ☓☓
Again, for the first time since 2007 and the second since 1999 (😭), we are guaranteed to have a brand new Stanley Cup Champion.
Advanced stats herein are taken from February 26th through the end of the third round.
P1. Vegas Golden Knights vs M1. Washington Capitals: I’m still in shock that this will be our Stanley Cup Final. An expansion team in an unconventional market, proving the world wrong in decisive fashion, versus a team (and a city) with a storied history of failure, who was also notably the worst expansion team of all time. One has been waiting years, suffering, begging for a championship. The other has a drought (no pun intended) as long as that of the defending champion Penguins.
Both teams are likable and unlikable in their own ways. The Golden Knights have no history, so previous to now, no rivals. They’ve got a member of every other team on their roster (sort of), so everyone can root for somebody. But their quick ascendancy has left fans of struggling teams saying “Enough.” — including Capitals fans. They play fast, exciting hockey, and they’ve established a model for success that should be emulated, from their coaching, their roster decisions, and their community outreach. It must be a blast to be a Golden Knight.
The Capitals, on the other hand, have shifted perceptions in my mind. Back in the day, I hated the cockiness that went along with having a generational talent quickly carrying a team to near-greatness, then expecting a championship to fall into their laps. In the 24/7 Penguins Capitals series, I felt the Capitals were the villains — arrogant, dirty, and just plain unlikable. Maybe it’s the decade of playoff failures that drove them to humility, or perhaps they’re starting to be pitied. Either way, I, and many many hockey fans these days, would love to see Alexander Ovechkin finally win a Stanley Cup. He’s deserved it for years, carrying teams on his back only to have them lose despite his effort. To win the Cup against his former general manager would be something, wouldn’t it?
At this point, after a playoff tournament that went nearly perfectly for top seeds, all bets are off. Nothing makes any sense anymore. The Capitals are a team of destiny. Obviously, more than any other year, this is their year. But the Golden Knights are one as well, and they just can’t stop winning. Where the Capitals stumbled, admittedly against their greatest nemesis and a so-called better team, the Golden Knights have thrived, blasting their opponents, including the fantastic Winnipeg Jets, like they weren’t even trying.
It’s Knight time in Vegas — the Stanley Cup Champion will be your Golden Knights in five. For the first time this playoffs (and in franchise history), I believe the Knights will win a series on home ice. It just happens to be the best win of them all.
5v5 Corsi, Score-Adjusted
VGK: Malcolm Subban
2017-12-23; WSH 0, VGK 3
2018-02-04; VGK 4, WSH 3
VGK: 2-0-0 [1.000]
WSH: 0-2-0 [0.000]
Like I said last time regarding team colors, it’s either non-red/black or the Capitals. Either way, I’m a happy camper.
Final Fun Facts & Frivolity Field
Cup Virgins: 2 (!) — VGK, WSH,
Cup Champions since 2006: 0
Longer Cup drought: WSH — 42 seasons (duh)
Wow, I really can’t believe it. Since I’ve been writing here, and since the year after I started making brackets in the first place, let me say it one more time: we will have a new Stanley Cup champion guaranteed. Let’s go!