Washington Capitals: 2018 Stanley Cup Champions

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There’s a strange feeling that wells up from inside when a team is about to win their first Stanley Cup.  It’s hard to describe — a mixture of anxiety, anticipation, excitement, terror, and catharsis.  I have little connection to the Washington Capitals.  Back when Alexander Ovechkin was a cocky twenty-something playing rough and generally being the villainous foil to Sidney Crosby and the good boy Penguins, the last thing I wanted was for him and his Capitals to win it all.  Year after year, as the Capitals furthered their punchline status, I took some delight in their suffering.  After all, nothing is given — just because you’re the best team in the league year after year doesn’t mean that you’re awarded the Stanley Cup too.

Last night, I was happy; overjoyed, even, that the Washington Capitals ended their 44 year drought and finally, finally won the Stanley Cup.  The Alexander Ovechkin era had, up until this point, been full of misery, missed potential, expected disappointment, and mockery.  All of that is gone now.  All of it.  A Stanley Cup victory changes everything.

Alex knows that.  That’s why he played his heart out in the playoffs.  That’s why he deserved the Conn Smythe Trophy in the end.  And that’s why, when finally presented with the greatest trophy in sports, he reacted like this:

Unless you’re a Vegas Golden Knights fan, you probably can’t help but feel his ecstasy too.  There hasn’t been a Cup raise this emotional since probably Ray Bourque’s in 2001.  In the face of a long-suffering drought, the eventual win is just that much sweeter.  Take note, Vegas: it’s downhill from here, but one day you’ll get that Cup and it will be awesome.  Hopefully it doesn’t take you 44 years too.

The hockey in the Final was awesome, if messy.  The Vegas Golden Knights completely lost their discipline and composure, the deft efficiency with which they slew their three previous foes.  It’s funny — everyone had been predicting their decline since the very beginning.  Their shooting percentages were unsustainable.  Their goaltending couldn’t have been that good.  And time after time, they seemed to silence their critics as they kept winning.  Enter the Stanley Cup Final and the Washington Capitals: they made the Knights look like garbage.  Perhaps the stats finally did regress to the mean.  Perhaps Fleury’s 0.957 Sv% got in his head.  Maybe the Capitals thrived without pressure, having been written off?  Their goal scoring was fierce, exploiting Fleury’s lack of lateral movement ability often.  Washington’s back end was stellar, limiting the high-flying knights to 5 goals over three games in the middle of the series.  Then there’s “The Save,” Braden Holtby’s godlike effort to hold the lead in Game Two, kicking off the four-game winning streak that brought the Cup to DC.  This, plus numerous scraps, hits, fights, and general bad blood, make this one of the most memorable Cup Finals in some time.

Playoff Series
2018-05-28; WSH 4, VGK 6
2018-05-30; WSH 3, VGK 2
2018-06-02; VGK 1, WSH 3
2018-06-04; VGK 2, WSH 6
2018-06-07; WSH 4, VGK 3
WSH defeats VGK: 4-1
Prediction: Golden Knights in 5 ☓✓

I wonder where Vegas goes from here?  For any other team, after a Cup Final appearance, nothing short of a Stanley Cup championship the following year is a disappointment.  But I feel, despite everything I should have learned by now, that Vegas cannot possibly repeat this kind of success next year.  I suppose the offseason may provide more clarity — it usually doesn’t — but I suspect the Knights will trend toward being a middle-of-the-pack team next year.  We’ll see, of course.  Anything can happen in the offseason.

Speaking of predictions, boy I picked the wrong year to give up picking the Capitals to win.  Maybe it’s my fault?  I made a committment last year not to ever pick this core of Capitals players to win again, and I followed through this year, predicting their opponent to win every series through this entire post-season.  And obviously I was wrong every time.  Yikes.  Good for you though, Washington.  I feel relieved of this burden now, and free to pick you as desired.  Like I said before, a Cup win changes everything.

Speaking of Cup wins changing everything, what I really want more than anything hockey related, is the Stanley Cup to come to Buffalo.  After Washington’s win, there are only three teams older that have yet to win a championship: the St. Louis Blues (1967-68), the Vancouver Canucks (1970-71), and the Buffalo Sabres ( 1970-71).  If the Cup isn’t to being the Sabres’ near future, I would definitely like to see one of those other two win.  Now, there is a longer drought out there — that belongs to the Toronto Maple Leafs, who’d last won the Cup in 1967, the year before the Second Six expansion.  As a Sabres fan, I would rather they kept that drought going indefinitely.  Buffalo must win a Cup before Toronto gets another.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll see what the future may hold.  The draft is two weeks from today, and the Sabres will no doubt select a defensive cornerstone.  Could he, as a first-overall selection and generational talent like Ovechkin, finally deliver a Stanley Cup to a long(er) suffering fanbase?  I hope so.

I decided to honor the Capitals’ victory by using the outstanding “Weagle” logo instead of the wordmark featured on the jerseys.  It looks so damn good, so it’s no wonder the team, and even the league, seem to favor its use as a de facto primary logo.  Now that the wordmark has a Cup to its name, I fear the Weagle may stay relegated to secondary status.  However, a similar situation occurred with the Anaheim Ducks, and they made the right move eventually.  Do it, Washington.  Don’t think twice about it.

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Stanley Cup 2018, IV: It’s Knight Time

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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…

Oh.

Yikes.

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…

Playoff Series
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.

Playoff Series
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.

Power Play%
VGK: 18.9%
WSH: 26.9%

Penalty Kill%
VGK: 83.1%
WSH: 78.4%

5v5 Corsi, Score-Adjusted
VGK: 50.37%
WSH: 49.47%

PDO
VGK: 101.06
WSH: 101.77

Notable Injuries
VGK: Malcolm Subban
WSH: none

Season Series
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, WPG
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!

Stanley Cup 2018, III: Lady Luck Strikes Again

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I am interrupting this 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff recap / prediction series to bring some much needed, somewhat deserved, good news for the city of Buffalo:

The first overall selection in the 2018 NHL Draft belongs to… the Buffalo Sabres.

Oh my gods it finally happened.  Two Saturdays ago, three years after a second consecutive last-place finish, and a second consecutive lottery loss (though Jack Eichel isn’t bad 😉 ) the Buffalo Sabres, having become the first team to finish in 31st place in NHL history, have finally won the right to draft first overall.  Waiting for them in Dallas this June will be Swedish defensive phenom Rasmus Dahlin.  And isn’t that just what the team needs?  Their defense has been mediocre at best for years; to add a generational talent to the blue-line changes the dynamic of this roster immensely and immediately, and for a long long time.  I cannot wait to see what comes in the offseason and how Jason Botterill puts his touches on the team after a full year of observation and tweaks.  Hopefully the toxicity of the locker room starts to shed, they give Jack Eichel the C, and the Sabres make great strides forward after years and years of suffering.  It happened to the last two teams to pick first overall… It’s about time it happened to Buffalo too.


Before we get to the second round, I need to voice my opinion concerning a recent, popular debate.

See, a lot of people have been complaining about the playoff format — that it’s a shame #1 and #2 overall (Nashville and Winnipeg, respectively) have to play in the second round instead of the Cup Final, or one of #4 in the East Toronto and #2 in the East Boston has to go home after the first round, even though they deserve to advance, etc.

Well, things don’t always go the way they should, especially in hockey, where randomness is a major factor.  Upsets are common: the higher seeded team advanced in 8 of 15 series in 2016 and 9 of 15 last year.  Sometimes a team that based on seeding alone looks like they don’t deserve to win, does.  Just look at Los Angeles in 2012 — an eight seed that won the Stanley Cup.  And just last year, the lowest seeded team in the playoffs, the Nashville Predators, went six games deep in the Cup Final.  So yeah, seeding doesn’t really matter now, does it?  Parity, and the reduction of an 82 game marathon into a 7-game series against a particular opponent, basically nullifies what came before it.  Anyone can beat anyone, so what’s the issue here?

The weird part this year is, yes, actually, seeding does seem to matter.  There have only been two upsets this season through two rounds (and barely, with the #2 overall beating #1 and #11 overall beating #9).  However, that’s exceptionally low as I noted above.  In this year’s final four, we have three of four division winners, with the fourth being a #2 that actually has more points than the rest, and therefore home ice, somehow.  I never thought I could win a bracket challenge by picking nothing but higher seeds, yet I’m losing a bracket challenge to someone who did just that…

The point is: this year is so far unusual, but usual is unpredictable, so I don’t see a problem here at all.  Playoff seeds shouldn’t guarantee that the favorite advances, nor do they resign the underdog to defeat.  Conference seeding worked well, sure, but I think the recurring match-ups between rivals old and new makes the divisional format light years better.  And just forget about 1-16 seeding — travel and time zones make it a non-starter.  So, maybe we should all just stop complaining about the playoff format and enjoy seeing great hockey between great teams.

Close one!  Thank you Winnipeg!  I’m glad you’ve rewarded my trust in you with fake internet points.

So, how about that second round??

Lightning vs Bruins:  Well, huh.  I guess I was wrong about the Lightning.  …and the Bruins.  My Cup finalist is gone, and, like Vegas last round, my lack of faith in Tampa Bay was misplaced.  The Lightning, after looking like crap against Boston in Game One, and conversely, the Bruins, looking like they should win the Cup right then and there, traded fates before the next four.  Tampa Bay made quick and easy work of a banged-up Boston roster, becoming the first team to advance to the Conference Final in five, and the only series of the second round not to be tied at two.

I guess on the one hand, I’m relieved because I cannot abide Boston sports’ success.  I thought the Bruins were better than they ended up being, and for that I’m not sad, I’m disappointed.  Boston, you’ve disappointed me.  As if I needed another reason not to like your teams.  But seriously, what the devil is wrong with Brad Marchand?  That boy ain’t right.  I love watching hockey, but I don’t need to see players licking each other.  No thank you.  I get that antics make playoff series fun — see all of the shenanigans that went on in 2011 between Vancouver and, of course, Boston — but come on, that’s gross.  I’m glad this is over.

Playoff Series
2018-04-28; BOS 6, TBL 2
2018-04-30; BOS 2, TBL 4
2018-05-02; TBL 4, BOS 1
2018-05-04; TBL 4, BOS 3 OT
2018-05-06; BOS 1, TBL 3
TBL defeats BOS: 4-1
Prediction: Bruins in 7 ☓☓

Capitals vs Penguins:  What the fuck.  Of course this happens now, after I’ve given up faith in the Capitals.  I was a year early on the no-expectations-so-of-course-this-is-their-year trendy pick and that defeat plunged me into never picking the Capitals again.  Whoops?  I don’t really like the Capitals, per se, but I really do feel happy for them now.  This is the hill they’ve failed to climb year after year with this group.  And not only that, but it’s been twenty years since Washington has seen the third round, where they defeated my Buffalo Sabres — when I was just a kid too young to stay up and watch.  I digress; the Capitals have slain their tormentors, the Pittsburgh Penguins, two-time defending Cup champions, for the first time since 1994 and only the second time ever.

And what a series it was.  It had everything.  Suspensions!  Fights!  Goaltender interference!  Inconclusive goal reviews!  An overturned goal call!  Ovechkin versus Crosby every single shift.  It was insane.  I said Winnipeg/Nashville was the marquee series in this fantastic second round, but even that seven game epic pales in comparison to the sheer animosity and intensity we’ve seen between these long time rivals.  Indeed, rivalries have been waning in general during the post-lockout, speed- and skill-focused years, but clearly they’re still possible.  Of all of the so-called rivalries still active in the league, this might just be the best.

До Свидания Pittsburgh.  Nobody will miss you.

Playoff Series
2018-04-26; PIT 3, WSH 2
2018-04-29; PIT 1, WSH 4
2018-05-01; WSH 4, PIT 3
2018-05-03; WSH 1, PIT 3
2018-05-05; PIT 3, WSH 6
2018-05-08; WSH 2, PIT 1 OT
WSH defeats PIT: 4-2
Prediction: Penguins in 6 

Predators vs. Jets:  Can you believe it?  The Presidents’ Trophy winning Nashville Predators, a trendy pick for Cup champion after coming so close last year, is out after just two rounds, to a team that, previous to this season, had never even won a playoff game in almost 20 seasons.  This series was awesome.  The Jets looked phenomenal in their wins, while the Predators held steady in theirs.  Game Two was insane, where Winnipeg lost a lead, but kept rallying late to force OT, where they lost in front of Nashville’s rabid home crowd.  But the real crown jewel of this series was Game Three, the greatest comeback in Winnipeg Jets history — down 0-3 after one, they stormed back to put 5 goals past Vezina finalist Pekka Rinna and add two empty netters to make the score an absurd 7-4.

I don’t know if Nashville was just tired or lacked the chemistry of last year’s Cinderella run.  They were good, but perhaps that long Colorado series was a harbinger of doom.  Then again, the Jets are really good.  They’ve got firepower up top, rock-solid goaltending, and a hard-hitting, offensive defense.  The only number two seed left among a trio of one seeds, they’re somehow the Cup favorite.  That’s right, the Winnipeg freakin’ Jets are the Cup favourite.  What a year.

Playoff Series
2018-04-26; WPG 4, NSH 1
2018-04-28; WPG 4, NSH 5 2OT
2018-04-30; NSH 4, WPG 7
2018-05-02; NSH 2, WPG 1
2018-05-05; WPG 6, NSH 2
2018-05-07; NSH 4, WPG 0
2018-05-10; WPG 5, NSH 1
WPG defeats NSH: 4-3
Prediction: Jets in 6 ✓☓

Golden Knights vs Sharks:  This makes just about absolutely no sense.  And yet, I (mostly) predicted this series correctly, save for a game seven and/or one extra road win.  What can I say?  The Vegas Golden Knights are for real, and this fairly dominant display over the feisty San Jose Sharks should once and for all put a nail into the coffin of doubt that’s been hanging around them since the start of the season.  Marc-Andre Fleury is running away with the Conn Smythe at this point, and I’d not be surprised in the least if (gag) the Golden Knights win the Stanley Cup this year.  I can’t believe I’ve finally said those words…

Poor Sharkies though.  Joe Thornton never saw the ice in the playoffs, and this might be it for Jumbo Joe’s career.  Will they re-sign Evander Kane?  Are we back to an era of choking in San Jose?  I hope not, I hope so, and I freakin’ hope not.  I believe the window’s still very much open in the Bay.  That is, if they can just win a Game Six at home for once.

Playoff Series
2018-04-26; SJS 0, VGK 7
2018-04-28; SJS 4, VGK 3 2OT
2018-04-30; VGK 4, SJS 3 OT
2018-05-03; VGK 0, SJS 4
2018-05-05; SJS 3, VGK 4
2018-05-07; VGK 3, SJS 0
VGK defeats SJS: 4-2
Prediction: Golden Knights in 7  ✓☓

I said last year that if we get 75% turnover in the final four every year, we’ll  get a new team a Cup eventually.  Well, look at this.  The Stanley Cup Champion is not going to be Pittsburgh.  It’s not going to be Chicago.  Nor Los Angeles.  Nor Boston.  That weird cycle is over.  It’s also not going to be Detroit, Anaheim, nor Carolina — all of the post-lockout Cup champions are out.  And we’ve got 50% unweighted odds of a first-time winner to boot.  Heck yes.


Advanced stats herein are taken from February 26th through the end of the second round, with the rankings being among the four teams remaining.

 

A1 Tampa Bay Lightning vs M1 Washington Capitals:  This feels weird.  Tampa Bay is obviously no stranger to the Conference Finals, having reached the third round in 2015 and 2016.  Washington, on the other hand, well, I said it above — their last appearance was in 1998, and their only other was in 1990.  So, ‘sbeenawhile.  These once Southeast Division rivals are meeting for the third time in the playoffs, where Tampa Bay won the previous two meetings.  From my perspective, this is the battle of two teams I had no faith in at the start of the playoffs.  My Eastern bracket is cooked, so this matchup is a new start.  Tampa Bay had been everyone’s Cup pick (or finalist, at least) at the start of the year, and for good reason.  They’re an extremely well rounded team, with exceptional scoring ability, forward depth, a Vezina finalist in goal, and a Norris Trophy finalist on the top defensive pairing.  They’re a powerhouse team built to win now, and they’re healthy.

On the other hand, the Washington Capitals have far exceeded (admittedly low) expectations, but don’t forget, this team won their division handily this year.  They too have a dangerous set of forwards, with some previously unknown depth guys chipping in clutchily.  Defensively, the Capitals are a bit weaker than Tampa, but their goaltending, while not as lauded of late, can steal a game or four just as well.  Washington has the better special teams here, while the Lightning boast better possession numbers, a (presumably) healthier roster, and took the season series.  This is almost a toss-up, however I’m leaning toward Tampa Bay here.  I’d be okay with a Capitals win (probably more so, as it would secure a brand new Cup champion), but I think it’s Lightning in six.  My faith is restored — they’re just too good to lose now.

Power Play%
TBL: 22.9%, 2nd
WSH: 27.5%, 1st

Penalty Kill%
TBL: 71.9%, 4th
WSH: 80.4%, 2nd

5v5 Corsi, Score-Adjusted
TBL: 53.47%, 2nd
WSH: 49.40%, 4th

PDO
TBL: 100.88, 3rd
WSH: 101.90, 2nd

Notable Injuries
TBL: none
WSH: Nicklas Backstrom, Andre Burakovsky

Season Series
2017-10-09; WSH 3, TBL 4 OT
2017-11-24; TBL 1, WSH 3
2018-02-20; TBL 4, WSH 2
TBL: 2-1-0 [0.666]
WSH: 1-1-1 [0.500]

 

C2. Winnipeg Jets vs P1. Vegas Golden Knights:  I’m still in disbelief about this series.  The last two teams left standing in the Western Conference are the two most recent additions to the NHL — the Jets were re-established in Winnipeg in 2011, moving from Atlanta, and of course the Golden Knights are still in their first season as an expansion club.  At the start of this year’s playoffs neither team had won a playoff game in franchise history; now one is guaranteed to play for a Stanley Cup.  Incredible.  Now, which one?  I tipped my hand above, but again, it’s time to justify my support.

The Vegas Golden Knights are the team that continues to defy expectations.  They have perhaps the best chemistry and well-roundedness of the final four.  Scoring comes from everywhere, and their previous opponents have had a hard time line matching against a speedy Knights team composed of nothing but second and third lines.  To add to that, their goaltending has been outstanding through two rounds, with Marc-Andre Fleury putting up an obscene 0.951 Sv%, 1.53 GAA and 4 shutouts in 10 games.  His days as a playoff liability are long gone.  I don’t know what the solution to defeating the Golden Knights is, because they’re not injured, not tired, well-rested after a week-long break, and against all odds, they show no signs of slowing.

The Winnipeg Jets will beat them.  Not only are they the best team remaining, but they simply look the best as well.  Their opponents have been tougher than Vegas’s, as they overcame the pesky Minnesota Wild in just five, and went the distance against the favored Nashville Predators, trading blowout wins with close losses.  As I said above, the Jets have offensive star power in droves, not only up front but from the blue-line as well.  Their goaltending has been incredible as well — among goaltenders starting all of their teams’ games, Connor Hellebuyck ranks third with 0.927 Sv%, 2.25 GAA, and 2 shutouts of his own.  These teams are very similar — very quick, brick walls in goal, and succeeding against expectations and each having almost no playoff experience to carry them.  In the battle of the Western teams of destiny, it’s going to be the Jets in six.  The Winnipeg White Out will storm into the Stanley Cup Final.

Power Play%
WPG: 21.3%, 3rd
VGK: 19.0%, 4th

Penalty Kill%
WPG: 76.7%, 3rd
VGK: 84.1%, 1st

5v5 Corsi, Score-Adjusted
WPG: 53.83%, 1st
VGK: 50.64%, 3rd

PDO
WPG: 102.40, 1st
VGK: 100.65, 4th

Notable Injuries
WPG: none
VGK: William Carrier

Season Series
2017-11-10; WPG 2, VGK 5
2017-12-01; VGK 4, WPG 7
2018-02-01; VGK 3, WPG 2 OT
WPG: 1-1-1 [0.500]
VGK: 2-1-0 [0.666]

Like last year, this is a very different final four, except this time, none of the teams are making a repeat appearance.  We’ve got three Cup Virgins out of four teams, the only previous winner precedes the lockout, and they have just one Cup to their name — the Lightning in 2004.  Now here’s the cool aesthetic part: every Cup winner since 1994 (!) has worn red or black, primarily.  This year, there’s only one red (or black) team left — the Washington Capitals.  So, either we finally get a new color as champion, or the Capitals win the Cup.  I’m okay with either!  Also, weirdly, it looks like we’ve reached the bottom of the alphabet.  Sorry, Vancouver.

Final Four Fun Facts & Frivolity Field
Cup Virgins:  3 — SJS, VGK, WSH, WPG
Cup Champions since 2006:  0 — BOS (’11), PIT (’09, ’16, ’17)
Longest Cup drought:  WSH — 42 seasons
Returning teams (to the third round):  0 (!)
Fresh blood (in the third round):  4 — TBL, VGK (!), WSH (!), WPG (!!)

AN ALL NEW FINAL FOUR.  HOLY CRAP LET’S DO THIS!