The Vegas Golden Knights advanced to the Stanley Cup finals by beating the Winnipeg Jets in five games in the Western Conference finals and can become the first expansion team to win the title. All that’s standing in their way is the Washington Capitals, a team devoid of curses after it defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning, 4-0, in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Here’s the tale of the tape between the teams.
Vegas’s William Karlsson scored 43 goals during the regular season, the third most in the NHL behind Alex Ovechkin and Patrick Laine, and has continued that production in the playoffs with six goals and seven assists in 15 games. Linemate Jonathan Marchessault leads the team with 18 points (eight goals and 10 assists), and Reilly Smith has chipped in two goals and 14 assists. As a trio, they have outscored opponents 10-4 at even strength, with a 98-87 edge in scoring chances.
Washington’s top line of Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson has been even better during this playoff run, outscoring opponents 13-8, with a 111-75 edge in chances, despite playing fewer minutes together at five-on-five.
The Capitals have an even bigger advantage when it comes to secondary scoring. Washington’s other forwards have 33 goals and 46 assists in the playoffs, significantly higher than the production from the Golden Knights’ skaters not on the top line (19 goals and 29 assists).
Both teams have capable blue-liners, but Washington’s defensemen do two things very well: They limit the number of high-danger chances — shot attempts in the slot and the crease — at even strength, and they allow a lower rate of scoring chances from that area.
For example, the Capitals’ top pair of Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov is allowing 9.2 high-danger chances per 60 minutes of even-strength play in the postseason, which account for just 40.3 percent of the scoring chances allowed with them on the ice. The Golden Knights’ top pair of Nate Schmidt and Brayden McNabb is allowing 11.3 high-danger chances per 60 minutes, which account for 43.4 percent of all scoring chances generated by the opposition.
The player at the heart of the Golden Knights’ success is Marc-Andre Fleury. The 33-year-old won the championship three times with the Pittsburgh Penguins, including the previous two years, and is 12-3 with a .947 save percentage and four shutouts in the 2018 playoffs. Fleury is also the favorite to win the Conn Smythe Trophy, given to the MVP of the postseason.
Braden Holtby had a rough end of the regular season. He was benched for the first two games of the first-round series in favor of backup Philipp Grubauer, but when he reclaimed the role, he settled down and backstopped Washington to its first Stanley Cup finals appearance since 1998, saving 447 of 484 shots faced (.924 save percentage) along the way.
At even strength, Holtby and Fleury are evenly matched, with a slight edge to Fleury for his superior success against high-danger chances.
Advantage: Golden Knights
Washington has one of the most lethal power plays in the NHL, so it should come as no surprise that it will have the edge with the man advantage. The Capitals are scoring 11.3 goals per 60 minutes of power-play time in the playoffs, almost double that of Vegas (6.3), with defenseman John Carlson leading all skaters in the Cup finals in power-play points with 10. Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom have nine power-play points each; the Golden Knights’ leading power-play scorer, Marchessault, has six.
Washington’s penalty-kill unit allowed goals in nine of its 19 playoff games, with an overall penalty kill rate of 75.4 percent. Vegas has killed off penalties 82.5 percent of the time, giving it the fourth-best rate in the playoffs.
That’s a testament to Fleury, who stopped 38 of the 41 high-danger chances he saw on the penalty kill, good for a .927 save percentage. Holtby’s save rate against these high-quality chances was .824, close to the league average of .814.
Advantage: Golden Knights
Based on what we have seen so far in the playoffs and taking into account a team’s actual win-loss record; its expected win-loss record based on goals scored and allowed — also known as its Pythagorean winning percentage; and its expected win-loss record based on expected goals for and against — a metric created by hockey metrics website Corsica that takes into account the likelihood a shot becomes a goal based on distance, angle and whether the attempt was a rebound, on the rush or generated on the power play, the Capitals should be favored to win this series 61 percent of the time. The most likely outcome is Washington winning in six games (a 20 percent chance).
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