The Vegas Golden Knights and Washington Capitals have very different histories, the expansion Golden Knights just beginning and the Capitals a long and torturous existence. What they have in common is this—neither have won a Stanley Cup or even so much as one game in the Finals. A feel-good story is coming out of the 2018 Stanley Cup Finals. It’s just a question of what spin the narrative will have on it.
Game 1 will go in Vegas on Monday night, the perfect end to the holiday weekend. Here’s a basic primer on the case each team has to be the favorite…
*Washington is deeper offensively. There are 33 players who have accumulated at least 10 points (combination of goals & assists) in the playoffs. The Capitals have seven of those players and the Golden Knights have only three.
*The Capitals are not only deeper, they have the brighter stars. Alexander Ovechkin, one of the greatest to every play the game, has a league-best twelve goals in the playoffs. Evgeny Kuznetzov has 11 goals and his 24 overall points are the NHL’s best in this postseason.
*Washington is executing on the power play, converting at a 28.8% rate in the playoffs when they have the man advantage. That conversion rate is second-best among playoff teams.
*The Capitals are the more battle-tested team. They overcame their nemesis, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in an extremely tense six-game series. The Caps then outlasted the Tampa Bay Lightning, merely the most complete team in the NHL, in a seven-game series. By contrast, while Vegas beat a very good Winnipeg Jets team in the conference finals, the Jets did not have the same big-game experience as the Caps’ last two opponents.
*Washington is getting really good goaltending play from Braden Holtby, stopping shots at a 92.3% clip. That’s really good in the regular season, it’s outstanding in the playoffs and Holtby was off-the-charts fantastic in putting up shutouts in Games 6 & 7 against Tampa.
Against all this, the Vegas Golden Knights counter with the following…
*Marc-Andre Fleury is the hottest goaltender on the planet, with a 94.7% save rate. By itself, that’s insanely good and it doesn’t tell the story of how many seemingly impossible saves Fleury has made. He covers for the fact that his defense is allowing nearly 34 shots a game, many of them high-quality looks. Or that his offense ranks ninth among the 16 playoff teams in goals-per-game. Or that the best goal-scorer, Jonathan Marchessault, might be the fourth option in the Capitals attack.
That’s about it.
So how does the smart money respond to this seemingly disparate situation? By making the Golden Knights the favorite. And it’s testament to the power of the hot goalie, that I’d have to agree.
Fleury is playing at a level that conjures up recollections of Patrick Roy in 1996, when the Avalanche Hall of Famer, stopped a more powerful Detroit Red Wings team cold. Or more recently, Boston’s Tim Thomas in 2011 and Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick in 2012, each of whom shut down opponents that were more offensively skilled.
It’s tempting to look at Braden Holtby, how well he’s playing and say that it should be enough to at least minimize the Vegas edge here and allow Capitals’ superiority everywhere else to decide the series. I’m pulling for Washington, so I hope that’s the case. But I just finished using that logic to pick Winnipeg and Connor Hellebuyck to beat Fleury’s Golden Knights in the last round. Five games later, I’ve learned my lesson.
Fleury is in one of those zones that every NHL fans dreams of their goaltender getting into at playoff team, when they’re so good that you feel like one goal can win you a game and that there’s nothing to fear about the opponent being on the power play—the killing of which is the one team-wide area the Golden Knights have a real edge in this series, and which still basically comes back to the Fleury is in another stratosphere right now.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—no position in the sports—not quarterback, not starting pitcher—matters more than that of hockey goalie in the playoffs. And when it’s The Hot Goalie vs. The World, bet on the goalie.
The conference finals could not have worked out any better for the NBA. Golden State and Cleveland both have their backs to the wall, down 3-2 in their respective series against Houston and Boston. The Warriors and Cavs each have Game 6 at home, so the odds are extremely high that there will be Game 7s on Sunday & Monday night.
After about a year and a half of uncompetitive playoff matchups, the league finally has some games worth watching. And knowing the NBA as we do, it’s hard to think they won’t max out their chances. Was that a subtle enough way of saying that LeBron will get every call in Cleveland tonight and the Durant/Steph combo the same in Oakland on Saturday night?
No matter how these conference finals work out, the Celtics and Rockets have made impressive statements by winning three games. Last week, when Boston was up 2-0, I took a look at how the Celts have been doing it. This week, I wrote that the Rockets have already validated themselves against any charges they wouldn’t be a good postseason team.
MLB: APPROACHING THE FIRST TURN
If we think of the major league baseball season as a horse race, I tend to see Memorial Day as the part where the teams are rounding the first turn. We know a lot is going to happen in the summer months ahead, but it’s fair to say this—whether a team is playing surprisingly well or disappointingly bad, it’s deep enough into the year that the “it’s still early” mantra doesn’t apply. Any trends we see now are at least worth discussing.
That discussion this past week centered on the NL East race, which has been surprisingly tight. We reviewed the favored Washington Nationals, along with the best of the challengers, the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies. These three blog posts will have you entirely up to speed on a race that will be a compelling summer story.
Everybody enjoy your long weekends. The TV schedule of the big NBA & NHL games, from Friday through Monday, are below.
Game 6: Celtics-Cavs (8:30, ESPN)
Game 6: Rockets-Warriors (9, TNT)
Game 7: Celtics-Cavs (8:30, ESPN)
Stanley Cup Finals Game 1: Caps-Golden Knights (8, NBC)
Game 7: Warriors-Rockets (9, TNT)