Complete Guide to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistMay 28, 2018

Complete Guide to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    The 2018 Stanley Cup Final begins Monday. The series features what should be an entertaining matchup between the Vegas Golden Knights and Washington Capitals. Both clubs are pursuing their first Cup title.

    These teams overcame worthy opponents to reach the Cup Final. The Golden Knights dispatched the Los Angeles Kings 4-0, San Jose Sharks 4-2 and Winnipeg Jets 4-1 to become Western Conference champions, while the Capitals claimed the Eastern Conference crown by defeating the Columbus Blue Jackets 4-2, Pittsburgh Penguins 4-2 and Tampa Bay Lightning 4-3. 

    In this guide, we'll examine the biggest storylines, the top stars to watch, the X-factors for each club and much more.

Schedule and TV Info

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    On Wednesday, the NHL released the schedule for the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.

    Monday, 8 p.m. ET: Capitals at Golden Knights (NBC, CBC, SN, TVA Sports)

    Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET: Capitals at Golden Knights (NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVA Sports)

    Saturday, 8 p.m. ET: Golden Knights at Capitals (NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVA Sports)

    Monday, June 4, 8 p.m. ET: Golden Knights at Capitals (NBC, CBC, SN, TVA Sports)

    *Thursday, June 7, 8 p.m. ET: Capitals at Golden Knights (NBC, CBC, SN, TVA Sports)

    *Sunday, June 10, 8 p.m. ET: Golden Knights at Capitals (NBC, CBC, SN, TVA Sports)

    *Wednesday, June 13, 8 p.m. ET: Capitals at Golden Knights (NBC, CBC, SN, TVA Sports)

    *If necessary

Biggest Storylines

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    1. Golden Knights reach Stanley Cup Final in inaugural season

    The rise of the Golden Knights is not just the biggest storyline of the playoffs but also of the 2017-18 season. A team that didn't exist a year ago, with a roster consisting largely of castoffs from other clubs, bonded quickly en route to winning the Pacific Division and Western Conference.

    Along the way, Vegas set records for most regular-season wins (51) and points (109) by a team in its first season. Entering the Cup Final, they've lost just three of their 15 playoff contests. Led by veterans such as Marc-Andre Fleury, Jonathan Marchessault and James Neal, the Golden Knights have defied all expectations. All that's left to cap this dream season is a Stanley Cup championship.

       

    2. Capitals destroy postseason demons

    Despite winning three Presidents' Trophies—awarded to the top regular-season club—since 2009-10, the Capitals failed to get beyond the second round until this year. With expectations somewhat lowered, Washington displayed tremendous character by overcoming a 2-0 series deficit against Columbus and a 3-2 deficit against Tampa Bay to reach the Cup Final.

    It's been a long road for the Capitals, especially for core players such as Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. As the roster's longest-tenured members, they've dealt with plenty of postseason heartbreak and detractors over the last decade. They're now four victories away from silencing their critics forever.

       

    3. Marc-Andre Fleury and Alex Ovechkin front-runners for Conn Smythe Trophy

    Through three rounds, Fleury has 12 wins and only three losses. His 1.68 goals-against average, .947 save percentage and four shutouts top all starters who've played more than four games. Those stats exceed his previous career-best numbers (1.97 GAA, .933 SP, three SO), all of which came for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2008 playoffs.

    Ovechkin is the longtime face of the Capitals and their heart and soul. He enters the Cup Final second in goals (12) and points (22) in the postseason. The Washington captain has also stepped up his all-around play, becoming a physical presence and leading by word and deed.

       

    Other storylines worth watching

    There's a connection between the two teams. Before becoming Vegas' general manager, George McPhee was Washington's GM for 17 seasons. Nate Schmidt, one of the Golden Knights' top four defensemen, was left exposed by the Capitals in last year's expansion draft. They could relish the opportunity to square off against their former club.

    Capitals head coach Barry Trotz's contract expires at the end of the season, and there's been no indication he'll be re-signed. This is the first time in Trotz's long NHL career he's reached the Stanley Cup Final, but it could also be his last series behind the Capitals bench.

Top Stars to Watch

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    David Becker/Associated Press

    Each team has a number of players who've risen to the occasion in the playoffs. There is a handful, however, who stand out from the pack.

    Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights

    Fleury is the biggest reason the Golden Knights reach the Cup Final. As mentioned, he's enjoying a career-best postseason and has to be considered their leading candidate for playoff MVP honors.

    Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

    Ovechkin has silenced long-standing and often unfair criticism of his postseason play. The greatest goalscorer of his generation is also leading by example as team captain, tallying two game-winning goals. As Ovechkin goes, so go the Capitals.

    Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals

    Kuznetsov is often overshadowed by his flamboyant and popular linemate, but he's taken his game to another level this postseason. He enters the Final leading all scorers with 24 points, including the series winner in overtime to eliminate the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round.

    Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights

    Marchessault was already a strong performer for Vegas during the regular season, finishing second in team scoring with 75 points in 77 games. The 27-year-old center leads his club in postseason scoring with eight goals and 18 points. He's also tied for the team lead with two game-winning goals.

       

    Other notables worth watching:

    Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals: He regained his job as the Capitals' starter in Game 3 of the opening round and has posted a solid 2.04 goals-against average, a .924 save percentage and two shutouts.

    William Karlsson, Vegas Golden Knights: A 43-goal scorer in the regular season, Karlsson is tied for second on the team with six goals and third with 13 points in 15 games. He's earned a reputation as a solid two-way player.

X-Factors for Each Team

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    David Perron, Vegas Golden Knights

    Perron played a significant role in the Golden Knights' regular-season success. Skating on the second line with Neal and Erik Haula, the veteran winger led the club in assists (50), while his 66 points in 70 games ranked third.

    An upper-body injury sidelined Perron for the final six games of the regular season and first two games of the opening round, and an illness kept him out of two games during the Western Conference Final. He's been limited to just seven points (all assists) in 11 playoff contests.

    With time to rest between the conference final and Stanley Cup Final, Perron might be able to put his recent health issues behind him. If so, he could provide a big boost to the Golden Knights offense.

       

    Tom Wilson, Washington Capitals

    Every team has an agitator who can get under his opponent's skin. Skating on the Capitals' top line with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov, Wilson has done a fine job driving opponents to distraction. A hustling, physical forward who doesn't shy away from the rough stuff, the 6'4", 218-pounder has also tallied 11 points in 16 postseason contests.

    Wilson's sometimes undisciplined antics, though, can result in costly penalties. During the second round, he received a three-game suspension for a hit to the head of Penguins forward Zach Aston-Reese, who missed the last three games of the series.

    When focused, however, Wilson can turn the tide of a game with a goal, a well-timed hit or a fight. He could become a crucial factor for the Capitals in their drive for their first Stanley Cup championship.

The Golden Knights Will Win If...

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    Marc Sanchez/Associated Press

    Fleury maintains his stellar form between the pipes, they get more from their secondary scorers and improve their faceoff win percentage.

    Fleury's performance is the talk of the playoffs. His stellar goaltending has offset the high number of shots (33.7 per game) Vegas has given up. He's also a big reason why it has the fourth-best penalty-killing percentage (82.5) entering the Final.

    The Golden Knights' aggressive forechecking system has also been a crucial part of their success. Still, they could use more production beyond their top line of center Karlsson and wingers Marchessault and Reilly Smith. They're the only Golden Knights' scorers with double-digit point totals.

    More troubling for Vegas is its performance in the faceoff circle. Its 47.8 faceoff win percentage is third-worst among postseason clubs. That could adversely affect it on the power play and in penalty-killing situations. If the Golden Knights can improve that stat, it may be a crucial factor in their first Stanley Cup victory.

The Capitals Will Win If...

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Their scoring punch stays strong, Holtby out-duels Fleury and they do a better job of killing penalties.

    Led by playoff scoring leaders Kuznetsov and Ovechkin, the Capitals possess both the second-best goals per game average (3.47) and second-best power-play percentage (28.8). Seven players—Kuznetsov, Ovechkin, Backstrom, John Carlson, T.J. Oshie, Lars Eller and Wilson—have double-digit point totals. They'll be tough for the Golden Knights to contain.

    Among goaltenders who've played more than four games, Holtby is second to Fleury in goals-against average, tied for second in shutouts and third in save percentage. He's outplayed such notables as Columbus' Sergei Bobrovsky, Pittsburgh's Matt Murray and Tampa Bay's Andrei Vasilevskiy. If Holtby outperforms Fleury in this series, Washington could win its first Cup.

    The Capitals' penalty-killing percentage (75.4) ranks 10th among postseason clubs. While the Golden Knights' power play (17.6) is also 10th, their energetic forecheck could prove a handful for Washington's penalty killers. In what could be a closely contested Cup Final, killing penalties could make the difference.

Prediction

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    Ethan Miller/Getty Images

    One of these teams will skate away as the Stanley Cup champion, and the other will just skate away.

    Winning the Cup would provide a Hollywood ending to an amazing first season for the Vegas Golden Knights. After their dominating regular-season and playoff performances, they enter this series as slight favorites, per OddsShark. They're a well-built, well-coached, hard-working team that hit the ground running in its first season and appears to have a bright future.

    Meanwhile, the Capitals have emerged after years of disappointment and criticism. Ovechkin, one of the greatest scorers in NHL history, needs a Stanley Cup to complete his impressive resume. This could be the last, best opportunity for him and his teammates to win it all.

    With Ovie performing like a man on a mission and the Caps playing well at both ends of the rink, they should have enough to overcome the plucky Golden Knights.

    Prediction: Capitals win the Stanley Cup in six games.