The smoke has cleared and we have arrived. The 2018 Stanley Cup Finals will pit one team that have been heavy favourites in years past that has finally reached the big stage after several years of failure, against another who has been an unlikely long shot this entire regular season and playoffs. The Washington Capitals have only ever been to 1 Stanley Cup Final in their 44 year history while the Vegas Golden Knights, as we all know, are a 1st year expansion team. This should be a very interesting match-up with great goaltending to go with a lot of speed and skill. Let's have a look at each team more in depth, followed by a Final Analysis & Prediction:
EAST CHAMPIONS - WASHINGTON CAPITALS
After finally getting by Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, Ovi and company can smell blood that this is now their time with a serious opportunity to go the distance and play in the Stanley Cup Finals. They are firing on all cylinders right now, starting with former Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby getting 2 straight shutouts in Games 6 and 7 to get by Tampa Bay in the Conference Finals. Evgeny Kuznetsov (24 points) and Alexander Ovechkin (22 points) are 1-2 in league playoff scoring heading into this series. Long-time Centreman Nicklas Backstrom returned from injury halfway through the Conference Finals and also started making a serious impact in those final 2 games. Ovechkin is arguably playing the best hockey of his career right now, and the entire team is following the lead of the Caps long-time captain. This is also the coming out party for head coach Barry Trotz, who has coached in the NHL for 2 decades, and like Ovechkin and this entire era of the Washington Capitals, had never gotten past the 2nd round of the Stanley Cup playoffs until now.
WEST CHAMPIONS - VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
This team continues to prove the naysayers wrong, showing that hockey can be the ultimate team sport when everyone is on the same page and playing like a team. It all starts with goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who unless they lose this series in less than 7 games will no doubt will win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player to his team in the Stanley Cup playoffs. He has been as lights out as any goalie in any playoff year ever. The scoring has been coming from the usual sources all spring long led by Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith. The timely goals these guys score along with Fleury shutting the door down has been the winning formula game in and game out. Outside of Fleury there are no superstars here, just a bunch of guys having fun with no pressure on them whatsoever. This team is very similar to the 1996 Florida Panthers, who made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals in their 3rd year of existence, thanks in large part to a lights-out performance in net by John Vanbiesbrouck and a bunch of spare parts from other teams in front of him that gelled together at the right time.
FINAL ANALYSIS & PREDICTION
Washington will be cheered on by most to see Ovechkin finally win the big one, which has eluded him for over a decade. They have the team around him to do it, right from the net out to the defence, and up to the forwards both at centre and on the wing. For Vegas, a lot of fans take exception to the fact that around the league there are many teams with fan bases that have been waiting a long time to get this "Golden" opportunity, and here they are playing for the Cup in Year 1. But make no mistake about it, there are 3 main reasons why Vegas is here in their 1st year; 1 - The Expansion Draft Rules. These were changed, having teams protect less players (1 G, 3 D and 7 F or 1 G and any 8 players rather than the 1 G, 5 D and 9 F from expansion drafts in the past) thus giving them better talent to choose from due to paying an enormous $500M expansion fee plus being the only team coming in. 2 - Salary Cap system. This team needed to reach the floor which is about $16M under the cap, so they were required to get some players and spend some money thus becoming competitive right away. 3 - A Goalie That Looks Superhuman. Not since J.S. Giguere of the 2003 Anaheim Ducks have we seen anyone between the pipes carry a team to the finals the way Marc-Andre Fleury has with this Golden Knights team, playing unconscious and looks like a man on a mission with something to prove. Just hand him the Conn Smythe now. And the Stanley Cup.
Prediction: VEGAS IN 5
(I give up on picking against these guys, it seems like nobody can beat them in a 7-game series and cannot be denied, especially when they play at home in front of those crazy fans - but I really hope I'm wrong for Ovi's sake)
2018 1ST 2 ROUNDS PREDICTION RECORD: 6-8 (1/6 WINS IN EXACT GAMES)