SCHEDULE: Game 1 Tonight, Game 2 Wednesday, Game 3 Saturday, Game 4 Monday
When it’s been 90 degrees for a few days you’re probably not thinking about hockey. You’re even less likely to be thinking about hockey between these two teams. This was not the Final predicted, and in the NHL’s supreme marketing strategy it’s going to put it’s showpiece curtain-raiser up the night after LeBron had THAT Game 7 and Game 7 between the two best teams in that league tonight. Good thinking. Anyway, this series has a chance to be good, and it also has a chance to be bad, because predicting anything with these two the past two rounds has been folly. Let’s get through it and then get about our holiday.
Goalies: He’ll be the least talked about goalie in this series, but Braden Holtby certainly has nothing to apologize for. He’s carrying a .928 throughout the playoffs since he came in on his white horse against the Jackets. While the Caps certainly played it back at times against Pittsburgh especially and the Lightning at times, he didn’t give the Bolts much at even-strength at all. Other than last year’s minor slip against the Penguins, Holtby has been a playoff stud for pretty much his whole career. Sure, it’s his first trip here, but it was his first trip to the thrid round and that didn’t seem to phase him much.
Then again, it might not matter. Nothing the Caps do might matter if Marc-Andre Fleury is going to continue to look like something from North Of The Wall in net. The numbers at this point are stupid, and while a five-game win looks like a pounding, in point of fact the only reason the Knights got out of that series was Fleury and the top line. Fleury isn’t being shielded in any form like Holtby has, and it hasn’t mattered. Ok, sure, Fleury will be seeing an inspired Ovechkin, but he just turned away the Jets who have at least three lines of scoring. If Fleury keeps this up, you really don’t have to dig much farther than that. If Holtby continues his form, you might see a lot of 2-1s in this series.
Defense: On paper, this is a pretty big advantage for the Caps. And they’ve seen what the Knights are modeled after in the Penguins and found a method for keeping them bottled, which was keep them in the neutral zone. The top four has more mobility than any of the teams Vegas has seen so far, and more discipline to go with it. Sure, Brooks Orpik is going to need an oxygen tank on the bench, but he’s been well-spotted and it hasn’t cost the Caps much and it’s unlikely to now. Carlson and Orlov are a threat to help get play the other way when the Knights get stretched as well. The stage might jar them, the script won’t.
I’ve written it four times but they got here with this blue line so I guess I have to stop. Still, I’d only want Nate Schmidt on my team but again, the Caps don’t have the firepower the Jets do and they just beat them. That said, the Jets carried a lot of that series and even though the Knights do their best to take their defensemen out of the equation by just asking them to get the puck out, the Caps won’t be as caught off-guard by it. The Caps do have enough speed to expose McNabb and Engelland and whatever other goofus is back there. But then so did Winnipeg. It doesn’t have to make sense because it’s hockey. That’s what “Hockey Is For Everyone” actually means, that every player will get his day because the sport is basically random.
Forwards: I’m sure if Ovechkin doesn’t get a goal in every game the stories will be about how he froze in his first Final, but he and his line have been excellent. Fleury kept Scheifele and Wheeler on a leash in the last round, but one thinks if Ovie sees some of the same chances He might score a couple more. Backstrom and Oshie on the second line and Eller on the third actually give the Caps slightly more depth, based on what’s been going on lately. But with the way Fleury is going, if Kuznetsov and Ovie don’t score and probably score a fair amount, they’re going to be up against it. And sadly, if this series is going to get national attention away from the Warriors third title in four years, it’ll probably be because Tom Wilson did something assholic.
While the going story about the Knights is how they’re “All For One” and all that, really they’ve been the top line and grunts for two rounds now. Marchessault, Reilly, and Karlsson have kicked everyone’s skull to dust to the tune of a near 60% attempts-share, and everyone else has kind of been backing up. Sure, Tuch, Haula, and Neal have chipped in goals here and there, but the process has been in efficient. Sure, the fourth line has been good as well, but the Caps have one as well and I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Ryan Reaves is going to be a difference maker in this series without renouncing everything I am as a human being. If the Knights’ main trio doesn’t remain dominant, Fleury might not even save them. The Caps top pairing has more mobility and smarts than they’ve seen in the playoffs, as Trouba and Byfuglein (in his own end) were both awful in the last round. Chances are Niskanen and Orlov won’t be, and Carlson and Kempny aren’t likely to be either.
Prediction: You’d feel pretty stupid going against Fleury now. Continuing his .947 means they win, plain and simple. Holtby has been really good too, and the Caps have kept pulling rabbits out of their hats. The Lightning were a better team than the Knights. The Penguins certainly had more pedigree. Feels like this one goes the route but again….947. Knights in 7.