The Vegas Golden Knights are dead.
The magic of the NHL’s newest expansion team finally ran out, and their inaugural season came to a close on Thursday night in Vegas. After an incredible and improbable run all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, the Golden Knights were defeated by the Caps in five games — turning them into the NHL’s official runner-up this season.
Here’s what went wrong for Vegas.
1. Fleury finally faltered
I want to get this out of the way: I am by no means blaming Marc-Andre Fleury for Golden Knights losing the Stanley Cup. I think the numbers suggest that the Vegas goalie was worse than he actually looked in the series, but 20 goals allowed in five games with an .853 save percentage is simply not good.
It’s certainly not the same Fleury that we all marveled at through the first three rounds. The veteran netminder entered the Cup Final sporting a .947 save percentage and four shutouts through 15 games. He was the best goalie in the bracket to that point and the single-biggest reason Vegas was playing for the Cup.
However, the drop-off was significant, and he never really looked like a truly dominant wire-to-wire force during this series. He had his good stretches and I’d argue he didn’t exactly cost the Knights any of the four losses on his own, but they needed him to be as great as he was through the first three series.
That’s probably an unfair ask, but I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that he could’ve finished a lot stronger. Even an above average series might have landed him the Conn Smythe Trophy for postseason MVP despite the series loss.
We’ve seen great goaltending carry through the playoffs, and we’ve also seen that unsustainable level of play run out at unfortunate times. This is the second consecutive year that a goalie has been great through the first three rounds, only to see a massive (and extremely costly) dip in performance in the Cup Final. Fleury wasn’t quite as bad as Pekka Rinne was last year, but he wasn’t close to good enough either.
I’m sure it’s not much consolation, but even with the .853 mark in the Cup Final, Fleury finishes the postseason with an overall save percentage of .927 – second-best among all goaltenders. That speaks to just how incredible he was through the first 15 games.
2. “The Save”
Maybe it’s a bit romantic to suggest that a single play in Game 2 altered the course of this series, but here’s a counterpoint: Maybe not?
After the Capitals dropped Game 1 of the series, they were clinging on for dear life as they carried a one-goal lead down the stretch in Game 2. With a few minutes left in regulation, the Alex Tuch had a golden opportunity to tie the game for Vegas. But then Braden Holtby did this.
That incredible save — lazily and unoriginally dubbed “The Save” — preserved the win for Washington in Game 2, evening up the series and ultimately becoming their first of four straight to win the series. But what if it hadn’t?
Had Holtby not gotten his stick on that shot from Tuch, we’re talking about a game that potentially goes into OT and potentially ends with the Golden Knights, who were the better team in the third period, winning to take a 2-0 series lead.
That’s a tough hole to find yourself in, especially when you’re a team that is constantly reminded of your past postseason failures like the Capitals are/were. We could be talking about an incredibly different series without that one save.
In the immediate aftermath of the save, it felt like the kind of highlight that could change the course of a series — the sort of highlight that comes between two different styles of music on the eventual championship DVD.
Again, maybe it’s a bit dramatic to say that everything changed in that moment, but there’s a real chance that things could have gone very differently had the save not been made.
But here we are, and Braden Holtby, who bounced back from a shaky Game 1 to have a very good series, now owns one of the most iconic and meaningful sports moments in D.C. sports history.
3. Caps’ stars outperformed Vegas’
Goaltending battle aside, one of he most important things the Golden Knights needed was for their top line to outplay Washington’s. Not an easy ask when you’ve got Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov on the other side.
That being said, one of the most impressive aspects of Vegas’ game heading into the Cup Final was the ability of their forwards to swarm the puck and pressure the other team’s top players into mistakes that created opportunities for Vegas. Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith were a fearsome trio with and without the puck for most of the the first three rounds, even against a high-powered offensive unit in Winnipeg.
Unfortunately, they didn’t have as much success against the Capitals’ stars.
That Vegas top line had a pretty bizarre series. Smith led the team with three goals, which surpassed the two he had through the first three rounds combined. But Karlsson, who led Vegas with 43 goals during the regular season, only had one goal in the series and it came in Game 1. Marchessault, who had 27 in the regular season and 8 through the first 15 postseason games, didn’t score at all.
Vegas got some contributions from secondary/depth guys — Tomas Nosek had a surprisingly good series with three goals — but it wasn’t enough to make up for what they lacked in explosiveness from their top-tier players. The Knights scored two goals or less in Games 2-4 and, without Fleury at the top of his game, that was devastating.
Meanwhile, the Caps got impressive showings from their top guys. Kuznetsov led all players with 8 points and was a plus-five, which is even more impressive when you consider that he missed nearly all of Game 2 with a painful wrist injury that put his status in doubt. Nicklas Backstrom was right behind him with a goal and six assists. Alex Ovechkin – the eventual Conn Smythe winner — scored three times and was a physical force. T.J. Oshie added a goal and five assists. John Carlson and Tom Wilson each scored twice as well.
And while the stars carried their weight, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the incredible depth contributions Washington got. Brett Connolly had two goals. Devante Smith-Pelly scored three times, including a beautiful game-tying goal in the third period of Game 5. Lars Eller found the back of the net twice, including the series-winner.
The Caps have impressive front-end talent, but it was really an impressive group effort in this series.
4. That disgusting Capitals power play
One of my favorite parts of watching this year’s Capitals team was their outstanding power play unit. Obviously, we all know what Ovechkin can do from the left circle, but throw Oshie in the slot and Carlson at the point with Kuznetsov and Backstrom as the playmakers…that’s a special teams grouping that you do NOT want to provide opportunities to.
They came up big again in this series, scoring five times on 16 opportunities (31.3 percent conversion rate) and often utilized the man-advantage to seize momentum and confidence for the rest of the squad.
Overall, the Caps scored 22 times on the power play in 24 playoff games this spring – the highest mark (with second-highest conversion rate) of any club this postseason.
On the other side of things, Washington was pretty good on the penalty kill as well, only allowing three goals in 14 opportunities for Vegas. Holtby was their best penalty killer and came up in some big moments to deny the Golden Knights.
The Caps were able to shut down a key extended 5-on-3 chance for Vegas during the third period of Game 2…without one of their best penalty killers in Tom Wilson, no less. That kill preserved Washington’s lead and helped them tie up the series.
For a Vegas team that has proved all year that they can turn the smallest openings into a massive game shifts, it was crucial that the Caps were able to limit the damage the Knights were able to inflict on the man-advantage.
5. Caps’ year
It went from a gut feeling to the honest truth. It really was the Caps’ Year. It’s no longer a mocking phrase or symbol of self-deprecation. It’s the truth.
Here’sto earn a spot in the Cup Final:
From dropping the first two games of the opening round and following through on Ovechkin’s promise to charge back, to finally beating the Penguins and making it past the second round…this team has proved they have the resiliency and mental makeup that older Washington teams seemed to lack.
And almost just as importantly, they also have had a bit of luck.
These components don’t always show up on the stat sheet but they’re vital to success in the NHL playoffs, which can often be wildly random and unpredictable. A single bounce of the puck can change a team’s fate.
That remained true through the final round. There’s a certain amount of luck that plays into the Holtby save from Game 2. Maybe in previous years, Alex Tuch lifts that puck and buries it…but this Caps team had good fortune on their side.
You need to not look any further than Game 4 to see that. In the first period, the Golden Knights had several chances to take an early lead in a pivotal game. Tuch threw a puck off a skate and it hit the post. James Neal had a brilliant opportunity to give Vegas an early lead in front of a wide-open net. He too struck the post.
Instead of falling in an early hole, the Caps caught some breaks and then charged out to a 3-0 lead before first intermission. That’s just not something that would happen to the old Capitals.
Maybe you don’t care for unquantifiable aspects, but sometimes they can be hard to ignore. For as much as the Golden Knights just seemed to lose the mojo that they carried through the entire season, the Caps also just continued to stumble upon some outrageous, glorious luck.
I mean, at some point you may have to just concede the fact that there are Hockey Gods, and they were finally out to repay the Caps for all the misery they’d caused them in years past. Washington had some external forces at work throughout this run and, honestly, it’s about time.
I guess maybe now we can just call it even.