Well, here we are.
The Stanley Cup Final begins on Memorial Day night, with the Washington Capitals finally barging their way from the Eastern Conference and the Vegas Golden Knights needing just 16 games to tear through the West.
No matter what happens over the next two weeks, one franchise will have its inaugural championship. We haven’t seen two potential first-timers collide in the Final since 2007, when the Ducks defeated the Senators.
That alone makes this Final fresher than most, and that’s even before we factor in the first expansion team to make it to the last round since the Blues in 1968, when the structure of the playoffs made it necessary that a first-year team advance to the Final.
Then, there are the individuals. Alex Ovechkin, the greatest goal-scorer of his generation — and maybe any generation? — is finally on the doorstep of lifting the Cup, while Marc-André Fleury aims to right a few wrongs from the past two springs, when he was merely the backup at the end of the Penguins’ twin championships.
There’s even intrigue in the respective front offices, with Vegas’ George McPhee opposing the man who replaced him in Washington, his old Bowling Green State University teammate Brian MacLellan.
Oh, did I mention AN EXPANSION TEAM IS IN THE FINAL? Love it or hate it, that spices this whole thing up to a different level. But the hockey itself should be fascinating, with just one player on each side — Fleury and Brooks Orpik — who knows what it’s like to win the whole thing.
In the name of fun, then, let’s see what each member of the Pittsburgh Hockey Now staff has to say by way of predictions. First, I’ll offer my own …
Gajtka: Vegas In Seven
Hey, I’ve picked against the Capitals for three straight rounds, so why stop now? In all seriousness, I haven’t loved the Capitals’ depth from the start, yet the likes of Devante Smith-Pelly and Alex Chiasson keep proving me wrong. Also, having Nick Bäckström back from injury makes for a mighty fine top three centers for Washington, with Conn Smythe Trophy contender Evgeny Kuznetsov and the underrated Lars Eller behind the Swedish star.
I also like Braden Holtby to at least hang in the same stratosphere as a peaking Fleury, so why bet on Vegas? (Sorry, couldn’t resist at least one lame gambling reference.) Well, the Golden Knights continue to impress with their ability to control the scoring areas in these playoffs, boasting the best scoring chance ratio (53.1 percent) of all the teams who qualified for the postseason.
I thought the Jets were the best team in the tournament, but the Golden Knights had an answer at every turn. That fact, plus all the rest this team has earned between rounds this spring, leads me to believe they’ll have the edge in play over the course of the Final. With Fleury playing as well as he has, maybe he’s bound for an off series, but even if he falls back a touch, I like Vegas’ relentlessly quick style of play to prevail over a Capitals team with at least a slight edge in high-end offensive talent.
But it’s gonna be close.
Kingerski: Washington in Six
In full disclosure, I don’t know what is going happen. I don’t have a good feel for this matchup. Marc-Andre Fleury stole the Western Conference Final. In the Eastern Conference Final, the Capitals elevated their physical gamesmanship to an intense, series-altering level. The Capitals resuscitated their team by flattening the Lightning…the much better Tampa Bay Lightning.
Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik looked like 2008 Orpik, as he hit everything that moved. He was a joy to watch in Games 6 and 7.
In my view, one of two things will happen: Fleury is going to stone the Capitals and they will implode under the weight of desire, or Vegas skaters will realize they’ve flown too close to the sun and grip their sticks too tightly. Which team manages the situation and plays to their capability will win.
My gut says Washington. Like the torrent of momentum which carried the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 when they became unstoppable (and like the Capitals also lost Game 5 in the Eastern Conference Final to Tampa Bay), the Capitals have that feel. So close to the Cup which fans and his inner voice have lorded over him, Alex Ovechkin will have the series of his life. He will have over 40 shots on goal and the Capitals will win.
Also, watch out for a monster series by T.J. Oshie who is very good in big games.
Anderson: Vegas in Six
OK, for a Stanley Cup Final matchup that has a gazillion good storylines, when you come right to it, it all boils down to Marc-Andre Fleury vs. Alex Ovechkin, doesn’t it?
Some are already anointing the Vegas (nee Penguins) goaltender as the Conn Smythe winner, and Fleury has been that good. Others are pointing to Ovechkin’s breakthrough postseason, with the Capitals sniper finally getting beyond the Penguins, beyond whatever else has held him back.
Both players, and both teams, are deserving of the Cup. But Fleury will make another key save or two on Ovechkin in the series, and the Golden Knights will have their golden night, thanks to Flower.
Vegas in glitz. I mean, six.