Are the Captials capable of stopping the juggernaut that is the Vegas Golden Knights?
Stay tuned (and we’re not so sure).
After Lil John and all the pre-game hoopla on Memorial Day in Sin City, the Golden Knights and Capitals staged a pretty good hockey game — albeit a little higher scoring than most thought.
In the end, the Vegas wave washed over their foes from D.C. in a 6-4 final that portends goaltending being less of an issue and scoring at a premium.
We’ve already given Vegas their due and certainly the stars in Washington have had enough ink spilled about them too. Which gets us to thinking, even a bit prematurely, about the highlights and lowlights of one of the most interesting post-seasons in NHL history.
For that, we have 10 great performances (so far) and 10 sketchy ones, with a few surprise players sprinkled in for good measure. Starting with sketchy to outstanding.
20. Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers – Sketchy
We might as well start off with one of the most tepid performances of the 2018 playoffs, from a player we least expected to underwhelm, Claude Giroux. After putting together his greatest regular season since debuting in 2008, this was supposed to be Giroux’s time. He led the NHL in assists with 68 and was second in points to Connor McDavid with 102. Just about every stat of significance saw a career best or a significant jump from years previous. Drawing the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round was thought to be Giroux’s opportunity to put the Flyers over the top. Yah, no, right from the get-go. In a 7-0 game 1 loss, Giroux was -4 — enough said. He logged an assist as the Flyers squared the series in game 2 (5-1 final). When things were looking up going home, though, Giroux laid an egg. He was a collective minus-4 in 5-1 and 5-0 losses in Philly. He got a measure of redemption in game 5, opening the scoring in a 4-2 victory that kept the Flyers alive. It would all be for naught in game 6, as the Flyers lost 8-5 and Giroux had a point and was -3. Overall, he owns the worst plus-minus in the playoffs at -10 and had three points.
19. Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets – Sketchy
When his team needed him most, two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky went ice cold. In fact, it’s pretty much been a recurring theme in his outstanding eight-year career — a wall in the regular season and a sieve in the playoffs. The 2016-17 Vezina recipient put together another campaign worthy of a few votes, playing in 65 games and recording 37 victories (5th overall), a 2.42 goals against average (11th), .921 save percentage (11th) and five shutouts (tie for fourth). The Jackets first round opponent, Washington, sure looked ripe for the picking, especially after “Bob” stopped 54 of 58 shots in a 5-4 OT victory in game 2, giving Columbus a commanding 2-0 lead going home. He was pretty good in a 3-2 OT loss in game 3, surrendering just three goals on 45 shots. Then the wheels fell off. He was beaten for three unanswered goals on 32 shots in a 4-1 game 4 loss. With things still not settled in game 5, Bobrovsky allowed four goals on just 29 shots as Columbus fell 4-3 in OT. Game six was an indictment of his post-season foibles, as he stopped just 22 of 27 in a humbling 6-3 defeat. His 3.18 GAA was seventh worst among starting goalies, and his .900 save percentage sixth worst.
18. Rickard Rakell, Anaheim Ducks – Sketchy
The last time the Anaheim Ducks won the Stanley Cup, old warriors Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry played key roles. Fully 11 years on, those two would again be expected to lead the way, but with other subtle changes made to increase chances of success. After going to conference finals in 2017 and scoring 13 points in 15 games with a +13, young Swede Rickard Rackell was the bright shining light of the new breed in SoCal. He scored 34 goals (tied for 17th overall) and added 35 assists to lead Anaheim in scoring. The Ducks drew San Jose in a first round series that promised some exciting hockey. If only it went like that. The Sharks outscored Anaheim 16-4 en route to a rare series sweep in just the second post-season meeting between the two clubs all-time. As for sniper Rakell, well, he scored the lone goal in a 8-1 game 3 loss and logged a -4, despite seeing the ice for more average time than in another other playoff year. He took just 11 shots and gave away the puck five times, too.
17. David Backes, Boston Bruins – Sketchy
Were it not for the performance of the Bruins first line — David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand — Boston might not have even beaten Toronto in the first round this year. That troika also dominated Bruins scoring during the regular season, but secondary scoring wasn’t an issue as the B’s piled up the victories. Veterans like David Krejci, Rick Nash and David Backes were counted on to pick up the slack and for the most part, they did. But, come playoff time, one big name disappeared — Backes. After scoring 33 points in 57 regular season contests, the rugged two-way center entered the post-season to prove to fans and team executives alike that the team made the right decision signing him to a big free agent contract in the summer of 2016. In the seven-game set against Toronto, he was good, adding two goals, including the game-winner in game 1 and an assist. He, like pretty much the whole Boston side, weren’t up to the task against Tampa in round 2. Backes took just 10 shots on net, recorded no points and was a collective -3 to finish the playoffs with three points and a -6 (pretty bad considering he had four points in six games in 2017).
16. Jared Spurgeon, Minnesota Wild – Sketchy
The scrappy little guy in the NHL often gets short shrift if they aren’t a superstar in the mold of Theoren Fleury or Martin St. Louis. Minnesota defenceman Jared Spurgeon, all 5’9″ and 168 lbs. of him, has consistently proved everyone wrong by becoming a better defenceman each and every year since debuting with the Wild in 2010. After a breakout 2016-17 season that saw him log a career high 38 points in 76 games, the former sixth round pick of the New York Islanders tallied 37 points in 2017-18, in just 61 games. He often outshone the bigger names like Matt Dumba and Ryan Suter on the Minnesota blue line and logged a career high 24:33 in ice time. The playoffs, though, were not to be his finest hour. Matched against division foe Winnipeg, the Wild fought gamely in game 1, but lost 3-2. Spurgeon was no points and -1 that game and in game 2 he was victimized for three goals against as the Jets buried Minnesota 4-1 to take a 2-0 lead. Spurgeon and the Wild made things interesting with a 6-2 game 3 victory, where he logged an assist and was +2. All that good will, though, got washed away in consecutive shutout losses, where Spurgeon was -2. In all, he had one point and was -4. Not near good enough.
15. Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs – Sketchy
There was a rumor in the Center of the Hockey Universe that a rift exists between budding superstar Auston Matthews and head coach Mike Babcock. Enough of a festering fissure that Babs and the Leafs executive felt required a visit Chez Matthews in Arizona after Toronto got bounced by Boston in seven games. The dining table discussion no doubt included references to Matthews sub-par performance in the playoffs and maybe his take on how little ice time he was getting for a premier player. Matthews, who was coming off a solid, but abbreviated season (he had a couple of injuries) was expected to take the Leafs to new heights. He scored 34 goals and added 29 assists in 62 regular season games and was +25. The reigning Rookie of the Year, who had an impressive four goals and an assist in his first six playoff games in 2017 looked like he might bust loose against Boston. Instead, he looked flummoxed most of the time, unwilling to go the extra mile. Other than scoring a big — and long awaited goal — in game 3 to help Toronto get back into the series, Matthews’ offensive game was stagnant. He finished with two points and was -4.
14. Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets – Sketchy
Perhaps it’s fitting that we are talking about the no. 2 man from the 2017 draft and his failure to launch in his first post-season. As much as Auston Matthews was a dud for Toronto, Finnish sniper Patrik Laine was given more games and two more rounds to prove his mettle as one of the game’s next great superstars. It was an electric regular season for Laine and the Jets, where he scored 44 goals (second only to Alex Ovechkin) and added 26 assists in all 82 games. We don’t take issue with the fairly impressive 12 points he put up in 17 games as Winnipeg went to the Western Conference final. Rather, we want to point out that with five goals, that was just a 24-goal pace compared to his regular season output. Add to that the fact he was made nearly irrelevant in too many games, especially against Vegas. What his sketchy performance boiled down to was shooting proficiency. In the regular season he scored 44 times on 241 shots for a 18.3 percent success rate (sixth best in the NHL among players with over 100 shots). However, he struck just five times on 56 shots in the playoffs for a pedestrian 8.9 proficiency rating. Not good enough.
13. Yanni Gourde, Tampa Bay Lightning – Sketchy
One of the great underdog stories to emerge from the NHL this season was the play of diminutive forward Yanni Gourde. The 5’9″ pivot went undrafted in 2010 and had a great junior career, before bouncing around as a free agent in the AHL and ECHL for five seasons. He got a shot during the 2015-16 season with Tampa and a longer one in 2016-17 (eight points in 20 games), before announcing his presence loudly to the hockey world in 2017-18. Gourde tallied 25 goals and 39 assists in 82 games and was a healthy +34. The Lightning finished first overall and guys like Gourde were going to figure in a long post-season run. After scoring a goal and an assist in the five-game, first-round ouster of New Jersey, Gourde was even better as Tampa took out Boston in five in the second round, logging a goal and three assists. Fatigue, or whatever, must have set in during the Lightning’s seven-game thriller against Washington. He had one lone assist and finished the post-season with less-than-stellar numbers — two goals, five assists and an even rating. He also clicked on just 7.4 of his shot attempts after burying 18.4 percent during the regular season.
12. John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks – Sketchy
Playoff success is predicated on goaltending. If a team gets good goaltending, it’s academic. Mediocre goaltending and early round losses are guaranteed. John Gibson, one of the better American goalies, was kept over former battery mate Frederik Andersen, who the team dealt to Toronto. In his fourth full season, the young netminder established himself among the league’s elite, fashioning a 31-18-7 record, with a career best .926 save percentage, 2.43 goals against average and four shutouts. The Ducks’ workhorse, who was 9-5/.918/2.59 during Anaheim’s extended playoff run in 2017, entered this post-season looking like he could lead this squad back to the Western Conference final at least. He wasn’t bad in two straight home losses to the Sharks to open the first round, giving up six goals on 69 shots. Game 3, though, was an entirely different matter, as San Jose ripped him for five goals on 24 shots, sending him to the showers before the second period ended in an eventual 8-1 loss. Game 4 wasn’t bad as he surrendered two goals on 24 shots, however, it wasn’t enough to stave off elimination in a 2-1 defeat. His final line was dismal: 0-4, .889 save percentage, 3.60 GAA.
11. Rick Nash, Boston Bruins – Sketchy
Rick Nash may forever be known as the guy who kept fans hopes up and made big money, but failed miserably come crunch time. Suffice to say he probably won’t garner another contract in free agency that pays him $7.8 million per year. The Bruins, looking to find the secret sauce to another championship year, pulled the trigger on a deadline deal to get high-scoring Nash, sending three players and two draft picks to the Rangers. He came to Boston as the author of 434 regular season goals and looking for a new lease on hockey life. He scored six points in 11 games for the B’s and seemed ready to take the next step in the playoffs, where he had tallied but 15 goals in 77 games, far below his regular season average. Well, 2018 wouldn’t be his year either and the window is closing to any post-season success. His only highlight game was a two-goal effort in game 1 against Tampa in round 2, where he was credited with the winner in a 6-2 victory. Otherwise, he had but one goal in 11 other games of Boston’s run, with two assists and a dismal -7.
10. Chandler Stephenson, Washington Capitals – Outstanding
Chandler Stephenson might be the best rookie no one saw coming. Drafted 77th overall in 2012, the former Regina Pats star spent most of three seasons with Hershey of the AHL and just 13 games with the big club, before getting called up for good this season. The checking line forward made the most of his first season, scoring a modest 18 points and logging a +13 in an average 11:52 of ice time in 67 games. He was a proficient shooter too, clicking on six of 36 total shots. He’s received a bump in ice time through 20 games Tuesday, to 15:41 and it’s paid off. He has seven points in those 20 games, with one of his two goals a shorthanded marker. That shortie, his first ever playoff goal, was a dagger in the decisive game 6 against Columbus in the first round. It came in the third period with Washington up 4-2, giving them a three-goal cushion in a 6-3 triumph.
9. David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins – Outstanding
Win or lose, David Pastrnak never took his foot off the gas in the playoffs. One part of a great line including Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, the former 25th overall pick led all Bruins in scoring with 20 points in just 12 games, which also still leaves him tied for sixth overall on the post-season ledger. With his breakout 80-point season, the Havirov, CZ native totaled 100 points in 94 contests. He only failed to score in four of his 12 games this year and gave Toronto a taste of just why he is one of the best players in the game today. After notching three points in a 5-1 game 1 victory over the Leafs, Pastrnak pumped in a hat trick and added three assists in a 7-3 game 2 thumping. The Leafs held him to just two assists in three games as they forced game 7, but Pastrnak again came through with a goal and an assist in the series clincher (7-4). Tampa proved to be too much for Boston, but Pastrnak had a signature effort in their only win in game 1 of that series, assisting on four of six goals in a 6-2 victory.
8. Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets – Outstanding
We’re going to bet that if the Jets could have left Big Buff out on the ice for 60 minutes every game of the playoffs, they would have. The giant defenceman was Hell on Wheels in Winnipeg’s laudable 17-game playoff sojourn, eating up 26:30 average ice time, which was five seconds less than P.K. Subban among defencemen who played at least two rounds. He scored five goals and added 11 assists and is still second among all rearguards in post-season scoring, along with a +2. Those numbers are made more impressive when compared to his regular season totals of 45 points and +15 in 69 games. In addition to being a scoring threat, Byfuglien hit everything that moved, to the tune of 60 (third overall), where he recorded 147 in the regular season. The Minnesota native was great in Winnipeg’s 4-2 game 1 win against Vegas in the Western Conference final (their only one), opening the scoring with his fifth goal and assisting on another. He’s a gamer and will figure huge in future Jets’ playoff opportunities.
7. Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh Penguins – Outstanding
If the road to the Hall of Fame was based strictly on playoff performance, Jake Guentzel would be a lock to be enshrined. The Omaha kid, who has 81 points in 122 career NHL games so far, is better than a point per game in the post-season, registering 42 (23 goals) in 37 games. Sure, he gets to play with one of the all-time best, Sidney Crosby, but don’t think for a minute that this talented former third round pick isn’t a player in his own right. Anyone needing evidence of his own personal greatness need only look at the monster performance he put in during a 8-5 triumph over rival Philadelphia in the series-clinching game 6. The Pens, playing in hostile environs, got four goals and an assist from Guentzel. Four goals is huge and made even larger by the fact they were scored uninterrupted by any other tallies. Though he was held pointless in games 5 and 6 against Washington in Round 2, Guentzel was integral to Pittsburgh being tied 2-2, scoring four times and adding four assists.
6. Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets – Outstanding
Perhaps more than anyone one else on the Winnipeg Jets, version 2.0, the five-game ouster by Vegas hurt Mark Scheifele the most. The Jets assistant captain was having a post-season for the ages, scoring a league-leading 14 goals and adding six assists in only 17 games. Conceivably, if Alex Ovechkin (12 goals, second) and Evgeny Kuznetzov (11 goals, third), score just one or two goals apiece the rest of the playoffs, Scheifele remains the top goal-scoring dog. To put his nearly goal-per-game pace in perspective, consider that the Kitchener native had 23 goals in 60 regular season games and 113 total in 366 contests. Five times in these playoffs he scored two goals in a game, including the series-clinching 5-1 win against Nashville in the second round. A very conservative shooter, Scheifele clicked on a whopping 31.1 percent of his shots (14 of 45). Crazy good post-season, he had.
5. Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights – Outstanding
William Karlsson may have been the big shooter in the regular season — and still is in the playoffs with seven goals — but Marchessault’s production is shockingly good. The Golden Knights are where they are in these playoffs (up 1-0 on Washington in the finals) due to contributions from players deemed expendable by everyone else. The height challenged Marchessault had a career regular season, tallying 75 points in 77 games and has kept up his assault in the playoffs, leading his team in goals with eight and assists with 11, in 16 total games. He was a thorn in Winnipeg’s side in the Western Conference finals, recording back-to-back two-goal games to help turn around a 1-0 series deficit. He scored the decisive goal in a 3-1 game 2 triumph, and then opened and closed the scoring in a 4-2 game 3 win.
4. John Carlson, Washington Capitals – Outstanding
Any lingering doubts that fans and pundits might have had about the Washington Capitals can at least partially be put to rest. This team, forever a bridesmaid and never a bride, has finally put together the kind of playoff run that has eluded them for decades. Win or lose against Vegas, the 2017-18 Capitals season can be adjudged successful. For years, veteran defenceman John Carlson had to hear about all the missed opportunities and the barbs thrown his way for under-performing at key times. However, the Caps 27th overall pick from the 2008 entry draft was and still is laser sharp this season. He posted a career high 68 points in 82 games and through 20 playoff tilts he leads all defencemen in scoring with 17 points (league high 13 assists). He is also +8 in just under 26 minutes of ice time per game and has dished out 31 hits and blocked 34 shots. He had a goal in the see-saw 6-4 loss to Vegas on Memorial Day.
3. Alex Tuch, Vegas Golden Knights – Outstanding
The condition that Alex Tuch be traded from the Wild to the Golden Knights, as a provision in Vegas’ selection of Erik Haula in the 2017 expansion draft, has worked out in spades. The rookie from Syracuse, N.Y. has been nothing short of dynamic as a second liner in Sin City since being recalled from the Chicago Wolves just three games into the 2017-18 season. He scored against Boston Tuukka Rask in his first game with his new team (his first NHL goal) and in 78 contests logged 15 goals and 22 assists and a +3. Tuch has been even more prolific in the post-season, scoring six goals and adding three assists in 16 games. More important, two of his six markers have been game-winners, including the clincher in game 5 against San Jose in the second round, which saw Vegas go up 3-2. He also opened the scoring in the final game of the Western Conference final, a hard-fought 2-1 win over Winnipeg.
2. Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals – Outstanding
For Alex Ovechkin, it’s Stanley Cup or bust. After many years of abject post-season failure, the Great 8 is finally on hockey’s greatest stage, with a long-awaited Stanley Cup as the big prize. But, along for the ride is linemate playoff leading scorer Kuznetzov, who has also suffered from a lack of playoff fulfillment. Thus, a tie between these two guys, one reliant on the other, was the only solution. Currently, centerman Kuznetsov has 11 goals and 14 assists in 20 games. On his wing, Ovechkin, who has put all facets of his game on display night after night, sits second with 12 goals and 11 assists. OV has been very effective these playoffs, failing to record a point just five times and adding a great deal of pugnacity to his game, trailing other linemate Tom Wilson (also a candidate for outstanding) by just nine hits (79-70) for the lead in that department. Kuznetsov, on the other hand, is putting forth a Conn Smythe effort with his abundant scoring. He also did his pal Ovechkin a solid in the series-clincher against Pittsburgh and foe Sidney Crosby, netting the overtime winner as the Caps won in six.
1. Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights – Outstanding
For his sake, Marc-Andre Fleury may want his team to tighten up a bit after Monday’s 6-4 Wild West shootout in game 1 of the finals against Washington. We’re sure he shouldered some of the blame for his performance, but there is no denying that the revenge he might serve on his former team, Pittsburgh, by winning the Stanley Cup would be served ice cold. He does have three Stanley Cup rings, but it had to sting, losing the starting job to Matt Murray as Pittsburgh won back-to-back in 2016 and 2017. A move to Vegas has been the tonic to revive his lengthy and successful career. His playoff run has been one for the books, with a 13-3 record and playoff bests in shots against (533), saves (502), save percentage (.942), goals against average (1.81) and shutouts (4). The Golden Knights are rolling and should they dispose of Washington to win a Stanley Cup in their first year of existence, the Conn Smythe is surely Fleury’s.