Absent the Pittsburgh Penguins chase for history, the NHL lucked into the best possible Stanley Cup Final matchup. The smiling, effervescent Vegas Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury against his old nemesis, the electric and dynamic Washington Capitals power forward Alex Ovechkin. The Capitals, perpetual playoff failures, against the Vegas Golden Knights, the golden misfits.
The NHL and NBC must be smiling, too. There will be more intertwined storylines and violence than a Stark and Targaryen family picnic.
Will Fleury, who stole the Western Conference Final, be able to carry the Golden Knights for one more round? Will Golden Knights tough guy Ryan Reaves punch Capitals pest Tom Wilson, or will Vegas defenseman Deryk Engelland get the honor? And will the threat of getting knuckled by guys who excel in that area be enough to deter the wild Wilson?
Reaves certainly did in the regular season, when as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins, he significantly limited Wilson’s dirty work. But the Capitals and Brooks Orpik found their physical stride in Game 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Final as they (legally) pummeled the Tampa Bay Lightning.
For 13 seasons, the closest Ovechkin has come to the big stage on network TV was a ho-hum Sunday afternoon game. Now, Ovechkin is playing perhaps the best hockey of his life and, more importantly, staying within the team framework.
“Ovi’s been on a mission,” said Capitals head coach Barry Trotz.
“There were a lot of people doubting if he still had what it took. The great players take exception to that,” Trotz said. “(Ovechkin) said, ‘I’m going to show you I’m still a great player.’ And he did.”
Like great athletes who tried and failed, over and over to win the big trophy but got their big chance later in their careers (John Elway, Roger Clemens, Dirk Nowitzki), there will be tremendous fan interest in Ovechkin. Thus far, he has been dynamic, and his early goal in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final set the tone.
On his current quest, Ovechkin has 22 points (12g, 10a) in 19 playoffs games. He’s already played five more playoff games than any other season in his career. The emotion was undeniable as Ovechkin guided questions to goaltender Braden Holtby in the postgame presser, until Ovechkin was able to gain his composure.
Holtby told Ovechkin, “You’re doing great, babe.”
Center Niklas Backstrom summed it up, “You don’t even have to say so much. You just have to look at each other.”
Will the Capitals emotions, relief, excitement, longing, and uncertainty, propel or hold them back?
One does wonder if the Capitals win what would happen to the thousands of Facebook meme creators who incessantly post “I’ll order an Ovechkin–A White Russian With No Cup”?
Like Fleury, Vegas top defenseman Nate Schmidt has a history with the Capitals. Schmidt spent four years with the Capitals after three years at the University of Minnesota. The Capitals exposed Schmidt in the Expansion Draft and former Capitals GM, and current Vegas GM George McPhee happily snared the defender.
Vegas top pairing, Brayden McNabb-Schmidt are not traditional “number one” defensemen. Instead, McPhee opted for a deep corps. Even that wasn’t able to contain the powerful Winnipeg Jets.
In the Western Conference Final, the Jets had 54 percent of the shots and a remarkable 60 percent of the high danger scoring chances. The Jets had 60 high-danger chances to the Golden Knights 40, yet the Golden Knights scored on nine of their chances while the Jets only scored three.
Yep. Three of 60 high danger chances.
Hello, Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury is 12-3 with a 1.68 goals against average and .947 save percentage.
The Golden Knights offense has been spread around, 15 players recorded even strength points. Though former Florida Panthers small-forward Jonathan Marchessault has been the biggest weapon. He also drives a #VegasBorn Lamborghini to the games now, after doing so in Game 2 of the Western Conference Final.
But the great war will not be between Marchessault and Holtby. It won’t be between rugged Capitals defender Brooks Orpik and everything else that moves. The great battle will be between Ovechkin and Fleury.
Can the man who is known as the Great 8, Alexander the Great, Ovi, beat the other known as Flower?
Millions will watch. Hockey ratings leader Pittsburgh will be glued to their TV’s as if their own were playing. After 13 years in the Penguins system, many in Pittsburgh still consider Fleury “theirs,” despite his new affiliation. Washington D.C is the seventh largest TV market in the U.S, which will help with ratings.
And, the NBA’s less-scintillating-than-paint-drying playoffs will also help the NHL’s ratings.
If the Capitals win, their rivalry with the Penguins will experience a rebirth as equals and champions.
It will be a fun Stanley Cup Final. The series will feature the best shot in the game against the best goalie in the game. High ratings mean new fans, new revenues, and more revenues. This Finals series should provide plenty of everything. And that’s a good thing for everyone.