Well, they finally did it.
No, not WMATA calling it a day on the whole “operating trains” thing and throwing in the towel on transportation altogether.
No, not changing the name of the local football team to something less spectacularly tone-deaf.
No, not even winning a championship.
But with the Washington Capitals finally defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins and advancing to the conference finals for the first time in twenty years, they are now among just four remaining teams vying for a Stanley Cup.
And as a springtime rite of passage, a young (and old) fan’s fancy turns to thoughts of the Conn Smythe Trophy, the prize awarded to the most valuable player in the NHL playoffs.
So, who among the Capitals might deserve the Conn Smythe?
Let’s take a look!
What’s the old adage? “You need your goalie to be your best penalty killer”? And even-strength player? And...well, player?
Ooooh, what about, “you need your goalie to steal you a game”? That’s a good one! And what about, “you need your goalie to make saves he shouldn’t make”? And you need him to steal a series, too!
Well, Braden Holtby has so far done all of that. Through 11 games and two series, he has been the Capitals’ best player, full stop, go home. In those 11 appearances, Holtby has saved 288-of-311 shots he’s faced for a .926 SV%. His goals-against average of 2.04 GAA is second-best in these playoffs behind crazy-adorable imp Marc-Andre Fleury. In four of the Capitals’ eight wins so far this postseason, Holtby posted a >.940 SV% (.943, .955, .958, .970), and he’s saved >30 shots five different times.
He has faced the most high-danger scoring chances of any goalie in the playoffs (56), and his .857 SV% on those high-danger chances is fourth among playoff goalies and second only to Marc-Andre Fleury among remaining goalies. He’s faced the fourth-most shots-against this postseason, despite not starting the first two games against Columbus. And his actual save percentage is 1.47 points higher than his expected percentage, the third-best delta in the playoffs.
Per Corsica.Hockey, all of this combines to mean that when you weight his save percentage with the quality of shots he’s faced (a statistic Corsica calls SH% QoS), Braden Holtby has been the single most difficult goalie to score against in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
But forget the stats for a second (okay, don’t really, but, you know...firmly lodge them in the recesses of your mind for latter access). What does your heart tell you about how well this postseason would have gone without Braden Holtby backstopping the team?
For my money, the Holtbeast is your clear-cut Conn Smythe favorite from the District.
What can you say about the captain Alexander Ovechkin that hasn’t already been said about a fine 23-year-old single-cask bourbon?
He gets better with age. He’s a swirling, smoky mystery. He hits hard. And he makes scoring seem easy.
The “book” on Ovechkin in the playoffs, insofar as a “book” can be completely and utterly asinine, is that he disappears. Nevermind that over the course of 109 career playoff games he is nearly a point-per-game player. Nevermind that in those 109 games, he has 458 hits and 56 blocked shots. Nevermind that his irresistible one-timer from the circle, as inevitable as death, has nearly single-handedly lifted the Capitals to victory more times than we can count.
This year, there’s no arguing about #Obestkin. His 15 points in 12 games is tied for first among all remaining forwards (Filip Forsberg, gulp), and his relative CF% (that is, how much possession tilts in the Capitals’ favor when Ovi is on the ice versus off it) of +18.25% leads all remaining forwards, as well.
Here’s some more fun Ovi 2018 Playoffs facts: he leads all Capitals forwards in on-ice possession (62.48% CF), shots-per-60 (77.81), and shots-against-per-60 (46.73). You read that right: not only do the Caps record the most shots (well, “corsi events,” but I’m calling them shots because that’s really what they are) when Ovechkin is on the ice, but they also suppress their opponents’ shooting best when Ovechkin is on the ice.
Plus, his 37 hits over 12 games are only five behind Capitals’ team-leader Devante Smith-Pelly.
In short, Ovechkin has truly helped carry the Washington Capitals this postseason, as he does every postseason. The only difference is, this time, he gets a whole other round to ply his craft.
The Birdman of Goalcatraz.
The Boy Who Scored.
Evgeny Means Necessary.
Perhaps no Capitals skater has come up so large in such big moments this postseason as Evgeny Kuznetsov. The first two goals of the series in Game 1 against Columbus. The empty-netter in Game 4 to tie the series at 2-2 against Columbus. The tying goal in the third period of Game 5 against Pittsburgh. And of course, the overtime game-winning goal in Game 6 against Pittsburgh to clinch the series, perhaps the single greatest moment in Capitals franchise history.
But even outside the white-hot spotlight of Winning Time, Kuznetsov has been consistently excellent and excellently consistent. His 14 points through 12 games trail only Papa Patriarch Alex Ovechkin among Capitals forwards. At even strength, he (once again) trails only Ovechkin in points (7), goals-per-60 (1.15), and primary assists-per-60 (0.58).
The top line of Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Wilson (or Jakub Vrana, for fleeting periods) has been nearly unstoppable this postseason, and with Kuznetsov constantly improving his 200-foot game, the young stud from Chelyabinsk is a big reason why.
The Abstract Concept of Vigorous Youth
Can you give a trophy to melancholic, fleeting, joyous youth? If so, get the engraver on the phone, because he or she has some work to do.
In the series-clinching Game 6 against the Penguins, the Capitals started five rookies: Jakub Vrana, Chandler Stephenson, Travis Boyd, Nathan Walker, and Christian Djoos.
Vrana, Stephenson, and Djoos have been excellent all postseason. Splitting time between the top and bottom lines (life is strange), Vrana has begun to make believers out of Caps fans who hoped the elite Czech prospect would pay dividends sooner rather than later. His game-winning goal with 4 minutes left in Game 5 against Pittsburgh is already iconic, and his speed was simply more than the Penguins’ defense could handle (sorry, Letang).
Chandler Stephenson, AKA Chand The Man, AKA Chandler Bling, has been a pleasant surprise and a revelation. At 24 years-old and already with five seasons in Hershey under his belt, many felt the book on Stephenson had been written. “Marginal NHLer, sporadic fourth-liner. Next question.” But this postseason, sprung from mucker/grinder purgatory and set loose in the top six, Stephenson has flourished. On the wing across from T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom, Chandler has provided speed and dynamism to Washington’s forward corps that typifies the style of winning teams in today’s NHL.
Christian Djoos, AKA Communion Wine, has been perfectly solid on the third defensive pair with hard-hitting leviathan Brooks Orpik. Providing much needed speed to complement Orpik’s preference for seismographic collisions, Djoos has transformed the Capitals’ blueline from an unmitigated disaster, flaming space garbage hurtling through the solar system without rhyme or reason, to something that seems like it might just be sturdy enough to contend for a Stanley Cup.
Toss in the next-man-up gap-filling of Travis Boyd and Nathan Walker (the first Australian to play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the set-up man on Alex Chiasson’s Game 6 goal), and it seems like the Capitals may have the ethereal spectre of youthful vigor to thank for their playoff success thus-far.
That’s who I’ve got for the Capitals Conn Smythe candidates. What about you? Share them below!