2018 Stanley Cup Final

Las Vegas Golden Knights -150 vs. Washington Capitals +130 (series)

Welcome to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final where the top two hockey clubs compete for the opportunity to hoist the Stanley Cup Trophy.

The 2018 Golden Knights have been a one of the greatest success stories in North American Sports. The civic pride they’ve instilled into the Vegas community, the attention they’ve driven to the game of Hockey and the tremendous growth in hockey wagering handle (especially in Las Vegas) are all unquantifiable. The boon provided by these Knights was unanticipated by everyone which is what makes this meteoric success so unique and noteworthy. While the Golden Knights story is inspiring, the goal today is to evaluate every factor possible in determining advantage (if any) between these two teams. When the most complete two teams reach the Stanley Cup Final series they arrive focused, determined, strong-willed and eager to complete the dream they’ve envisioned since childhood. Here’s a breakdown of the series as I handicap it.

Goaltending

Fleury 1.68 GAA  .947     Holtby 2.04 GAA  .923

These goaltenders know one another well as they’ve competed plenty in the past. Holtby, since his reinsertion into the lineup for the Capitals has played stellar hockey in contributing to the Capitals success. He’s calm, confident and playing the best hockey of his career entering this series..

Fleury has been magnificent these playoffs and his numbers prove it. If he remains playing at this level of dominance and producing these results then Las Vegas will win the Cup. That said, I have reservations about Fleury and though he has quelled them all year long I do not believe he’ll be able to continue this quality of play especially against a bunch of hardened veterans who know him well and are looking forward to competing against their old nemesis. In four straight seasons as the full time Penguin netminder, Fleury never realized a save percentage higher than .900. Last year while playing part time he accrued a .924 GAA over nine wins in fifteen games but was relieved mid playoffs by Matt Murray.  Fleury’s been exceptional to date, but I expect regression in his performance in this series not so much because I don’t feel he’ll continue to play well but because I feel there is only so much pressure a minder can face before a few begin to slip by. In the playoffs, a .915 or .920 save percentage is outstanding for a netminder but Fleury’s current .947 is stellar and in my opinion unsustainable especially understanding his past performances, his current defense, and the opponent.

Advantage: slight Golden Knights

Defense

Each team has played suffocating defense during these playoffs, but a closer look reveals Fleury backing up a defense that allows an abundance of shots on goal. In fact, the Knights have allowed 33.7 shots against their ‘Minder per game which is ranked 14th of all the teams in the playoffs. At this time of year its important to realize that minor team flaws may become festering issues in the Stanley Cup Finals and allowing a team such as Washington to sustain pressure in the offensive zone will be detrimental to the Knights chances. The Knights will be forced to address shots against in this series.

Washington’s defense on the other hand, has allowed a paltry 28.2 shots against per game against potent offensive competition so far this playoff season in Columbus, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay. Washington frustrated the Pens and Lightning with their defensive ‘bend but don’t break’ suffocating style and those teams are at least as offensively potent as are the Knights if not more so. Defense is a strong factor in favor of the Capitals.

Advantage: Capitals

Offense

While it’s clear the Knights are quick, fast and skilled they only average 2.87 GPG which ranks them tenth of all sixteen playoff teams. Vegas is extremely resilient however as they tend to answer goals immediately with tallies of their own as evidenced by the fact that against the Jets they scored eight of the nine goals scored after any game was tied!  The Knights 27.8 scoring chances per game is best among teams in this year’s second season with a minimum of ten games played. The Knights are an opportunistic squad that attack opponents with four unrelenting lines even though their scoring basically comes from the top two groups.

Washington’s offense is power based and very effective as they average 3.47 GPG, the highest of all playoff teams except the Penguins. The Capitals have offensive stars with recognizable names with guys like Ovechkin, Backstrom and Oshie but they are deeper in talent than is Vegas and in this final series I believe this will be apparent. Washington puts tremendous pressure on opposing defenses as they get production from all four lines which is something Vegas lacks, depth on offense.

Advantage: Capitals

Coaching

These two Coaches are both world class men and coaches. I see little difference. Trotz coached in a Conference semi-final prior and has eleven playoff coaching appearances while Gallant is in his second playoff appearance as a coach having taken the Florida Panthers to the playoffs in 2015-16. Trotz has more playoff experience and Gallant has proven that Vegas hired a great coach.

Advantage: Even

Special Teams

Special teams become more important the deeper this tournament extends and it is in this area of play that I believe Washington has quantifiable advantage.

Power Play

The Washington power play is hitting at a 28.8% clip compared to a meager 17.6% for the Knights. Therefore, the Knights must remain disciplined as they already allow abundant shots at their net and if they go shorthanded, it will further stress an already taxed defense and over worked netminder. Team discipline for Vegas is most important.

Penalty Kill

The Capitals penalty kill is 75.6% effective (compared to the Knights 82.5%). A closer look into who each team played during these playoffs however shows that Knight opponents, the Kings and Sharks were not offensively apt, and the overconfident Jets hobbled into their series with the Knights after a grueling seven games with the Predators. The Capitals faced the hottest offensive team entering the playoffs in the Columbus Blue Jackets then the two top ranked Power Play teams in the playoffs in Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay. I feel the Capitals will be more than well prepared for anything the Knights can toss at them knowing that the Knights are currently struggling on this phase of the game. I don’t see that changing against the Washington defense.

Face-Offs Won (FOW)

Face-offs in any hockey game are important in that they determine possession and possession is the preamble to offensive pressure. In one’s own zone face-off control is even more important in that puck possession allows a team to begin transition from defense to offense. Washington’s FOW is 49% which is acceptable understanding that for much of the playoffs their lead C Backstrom (who is their face off stalwart) was injured (hand). Backstrom is now back, healthy and back in the circle for face-offs.

The Golden Knights 47.7% face off success is fourteenth among all playoff teams this year. This is an area they must improve upon if they are going to pressure the Capitals defense with their speed and quickness.

Special team’s effectiveness in hockey is much like football in that they contribute proportionally to outcome and not every team is as effective with their special teams as others. Small details can pay great dividends in special teams and there’s a clear edge here….

Advantage: Capitals

Intangibles

Here is where my interpretation from decades of watching these Tournaments is drawn upon. I don’t expect everyone to agree with these positions but they are as I state them to be: considerable factors in who will Hoist in 2018 at least in my handicapping process.

-Rest

Make no mistake that the eight to nine days off for Las Vegas is a curse and not an advantage. We saw in several series this year (and regularly in past seasons) that teams with abundant rest have a tough time catching their legs in game one of a series…and that’s with five or six days of rest let alone a full seven or eight! Add to this that every Las Vegas practice since they whupped the Jets has been sold out and people have had to be turned away. The Vegas coach, team and jock strap handlers are the talk of the town as well the Hockey world and for the last nine days they’ve been praised, exalted and interviewed. This is not an ideal scenario for a team with no previous playoff experience that needs to enter the biggest seven game series of their careers focused and firing on all cylinders. There’s no way for them to be able to prepare for what has transpired these last nine days.

Game one advantage in my judgement goes to the Capitals no matter what type of light show extravaganza we witness prior to the contest. In later series games it is understood that rest may and often does compliment the team with days off.  In this series however, I believe the abundant rest prior to the series and the schedule of Stanley Cup Playoff games this year does Vegas well more harm than good.

-Schedule

A potential issue for the Knights is the Stanley Cup schedule. In every 2018 playoff series leading up to this final series, games were played every other night like clockwork. One look into this series and we see that rather than games scheduled every other day this series is: Monday, Wednesday, two days off then Saturday, Monday, then another two days off prior to (each) game five, game six and game seven.

Teams that rely on quickness, precision skating and pin point passing benefit by rhythm and regularity. Stretching out the schedule into a choppy two week plus schedule in no way benefits the rhythm and rhyme a team like the Knights wants/needs to establish to be effective and dominate. In fact, it could be argued that this uneven irregularly set up schedule provides advantage to the team that plays a heavier more physical style and relies less on speed of play and precision which is the Capitals.

It’s my belief that this scheduling (when looking back) will be one of the main contributors to the Golden Knights struggling to maintain their speed, precision passing and early playoff prowess.

-Hockey Gods

To put this simply, the Golden Knights have not incurred an appropriate amount of organizational, emotional or physical desperation to be able to hoist the Cup. Meanwhile the despair, dejection and underachievement that has been overcome by the Capitals for the last decade plus, is tangible. No hockey enthusiast may debate this and it’s Washington’s past futility that drives them toward a Stanley Cup Championship run.

Sure, the Knights are AS focused, sure they’re going to be AS prepared and they absolutely long to win just like the Capitals do, BUT they’ve not been kicked in the teeth, nor have they ever felt the disappointment of constantly coming up short or for that matter even losing a playoff series!. The Knights have not had the opportunity to invest the necessary blood, sweat, and tears it takes to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup and for this reason and those above I feel the Washington Capitals win this series.

Series: Washington +130  2 units                        Prop: Under 5.5 series games +190