Saturday, May 26, 2018

Stanley Cup Final preview

The Stanley Cup Final is set, and it will see the Washington Capitals, a team that never wins it all because they're choking dogs, face the Vegas Golden Knights, a team that never wins it all because they didn't even exist until a few minutes ago. The world doesn't make sense and we've all been exposed as fools for caring about any of this. Nothing matters. On to the preview!

In this corner: The Washington Capitals (49-26-7, 105 points, +18 goals differential), who finished first in the Metro despite taking a significant step back after back-to-back Presidents' Trophies.

The road so far: They fell behind the Blue Jackets 2-0 and then went to overtime in Game 3, at which point I tweeted this. They won that series, slayed the dragon by finally beating the Penguins in round two, and then came back to beat the Lightning in seven.

The history books: Ugly. The Capitals have never won a Stanley Cup in franchise history, which dates back to 1974. They went to the final once, back in 1998, but didn't win a game, and spent the next 20 years failing to even make it out of the second round. Oh, and they have a history of blowing big leads in the playoffs, often in the most crushing way imaginable. Now they're four games away from finally winning it all. And they're not even close to being the most surprising team in the final. Nothing matters.

Injury report: Brooks Orpik and Devante Smith-Pelly both left Game 7 with injuries and are considered day to day, and Nicklas Backstrom is still playing through some sort of hand injury that's clearly affecting him. Also, it's the playoffs, so we'll eventually find out that John Carlson's sternum is made out of papier-mâché from a child's science fair project but nobody told us.

One player to watch: Braden Holtby. Here's the ugly truth about the NHL playoffs: It's not really about who wants it more, or who knows how to win, or even who has the best team. Often, it's just about the goalies. That's it. The best goalie wins, and everyone else is just there to shoot pucks into whichever goalie goes super-nova and becomes unbeatable.

Right now, that's Holtby. He had a miserable season, one that even saw the Caps hand the starting duties to Philipp Grubauer at the start of the playoffs. But he won the job back, got better as the postseason wore on, recording his first shutout of the entire season in Game 6 against the Lightning, and then earned another in Game 7. And it's not like he's some scrub having the hot streak of a lifetime. This is the 2016 Vezina winner we're talking about, not to mention last year's runner up. All season long, Caps fans wondered where that goaltender had gone. They found him, just in time.

Key number: 11 – The number of minutes that passed in Wednesday's third period before the Lightning managed a shot on net. That's insane. The Capitals were on the road, defending a three-goal lead against a star-studded roster that had scored more goals than any team in the last eight years and was in all-out attack mode with their season on the line. And the Lightning didn't even get a shot for more than half the period. Hockey fans love to talk about how defense wins championships, and it's usually overstated. But that was a clinic in how to shut down the other side, and if the Caps can bring that approach to the final then they'll be in great shape.

Dominant narrative: The redemption of Alexander Ovechkin. For years, he's been the guy who couldn't come through in the big one. Whether it was the NHL playoffs or the Olympics or anywhere that a meaningful championship was on the line, Ovechkin was there, and he was skating off the ice with his head down while somebody else—usually Sidney Crosby—was celebrating. And there was a simple reason: He was the sort of player who could rack up personal stats, but couldn't help you win when it mattered.

Never mind if it was true—it wasn't. Never mind if the stats backed it up—they didn't. Sports fan love this narrative, and once it lands on a superstar, there's no way to shake it. Except for one: Win the whole damn thing. Ovechkin has been scoring big goals all spring, including the winner in Game 7 against Tampa. This is his time. This is where he kills the narrative once and for all. This is where he redefines his legacy forever.

Or else, he reinforces it. Those are the stakes.

>> Read the full post at Vice Sports

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