Well, this is it folks.
The big enchilada. The final level.
The tacky themed casino to end all tacky themed casinos.
Standing in their way are the Vegas Golden Knights, the most explosive desert expansion team since the Manhattan Project.
Just four wins separate the Capitals from the immortality of a Stanley Cup championship. Four measly, meager little wins. With eternity on the horizon, let’s take a look at which of Washington’s skaters are most likely to take home an extra bit of hardware: the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Awarded to the Most Valuable Player of the NHL postseason, the Conn Smythe Trophy tells the rest of the world, “Getting to the hockey mountaintop is a team effort, but I’m our Sherpa.”
As I looked at earlier this postseason, after the Capitals defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-2 to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals (I will never tire of writing that), three Washington players have emerged as obvious frontrunners for the honor: Braden Holtby, Alex Ovechkin, and Evgeny Kuznetsov.
So: with twelve wins under their belts and four more between them and the greatest prize in all of professional sports, who is the most deserving?
I’M GLAD YOU ASKED! Let’s take a look.
Let’s be completely and totally intellectually honest with ourselves: a team will only go as deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs as their goaltender will carry them on his broad, impeccably padded shoulders.
After defeating the Penguins in the second round, I wrote this about Holtby and his MVP candidacy:
For my money, the Holtbeast is your clear-cut Conn Smythe favorite from the District.
Obviously, I cannot really imagine a world, existent here on our Earth in the Year of Our Lord 2018, in which the Washington Capitals win the Stanley Cup and Alex Ovechkin does not receive the Conn Smythe Trophy as a (perfectly deserving) lifetime achievement award.
But the Capitals would not be in the Final without Braden Holtby. Full stop, call your mama.
His basic, underlying stats are not very remarkable:
- 5v5 Save Percentage = .938, good for 4th in the playoffs.
- 5v5 High-Danger Save Percentage = .844, good for 8th in the playoffs.
- Penalty Kill Save Percentage = .851, good for 9th in the playoffs.
- Penalty Kill High-Danger Save Percentage = .760, good for 7th in the playoffs.
But you’re not basic, are you? (Feel free to quickly hide your pumpkin spice latte, I’ll wait.)
When you dig a little deeper, it becomes exceedingly obvious that Holtby is being asked to do more than just about any other goaltender in the playoffs, having to catch the proverbial cannonball with his chest nearly every night.
Ol’ Hairy-Headed Holtby has faced 389 even-strength shots this postseason, the 2nd-most of any goaltender. 77 of those shots have been high-danger scoring chances. That is both the most in the playoffs, and 20 more than Vegas’ Marc-Andre Fleury has faced. In fact, no goalie this postseason has had a greater percentage of their shots faced be high-danger scoring chances than Braden Holtby (20%).
Fully half of the even-strength goals Holtby has allowed (24) have been on high-danger scoring chances (12), also the highest such percentage in the playoffs.
And despite being thrown to the wolves like bearded meat nearly every single night this postseason, Holtby has still saved 6.1 goals above the expected even-strength average.
Plus, Holtby turned in his first two shutouts of the year in Games 6 and 7 of the conference final.
He still may be just the second-best goaltender in this Stanley Cup Final matchup, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been the best player on the Capitals’ roster this postseason.
Heaping praise on Alex Ovechkin is like sprinkling sugar on a pixie stick at this point.
What can I tell you about the Capitals’ captain that you haven’t already heard angels herald with their heavenly trumpets and Mike Milbury vehemently deny through increasingly prolific flop sweats?
This postseason, Ovechkin leads the Capitals (and all players in the Final) with 12 goals and 7 even-strength goals. His 22 points trail only fellow Russian nymph Evgeny Kuznetsov among all skaters in the Final, and his even-strength primary points-per-60 (2.22) leads Washington and trails only Vegas’ Reilly Smith. (For a deeper dive on Smith, we’ve got you covered right here.)
What’s more, Ovechkin drives possession for the Capitals like a burly bus driver. His even-strength CF% of 53.83% leads Washington, and neither of his two linemates Evgeny Kuznetsov or Tom Wilson are second, suggesting that Ovechkin himself is the magic ingredient. When it comes to tilting the ice for the Caps, Ovechkin’s Rel CF% (that is, how much possession shifts for or against the Capitals when Ovechkin is on the ice vs. on the bench) of +6.15% leads the team by a Siberian mile.
Plus, as ESPN’s typically fantastic Greg Wyshynski has pointed out, Ovechkin has come up MASSIVELY this postseason in the absolute biggest moments possible.
Eh, all-time leader in regular-season OT goals hasn't scored one in the playoffs through over 100 games. I love Ovechkin, but this is legitimately the first time I can say he won a series through his own efforts.— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) May 9, 2018
With the goal or primary assist on three different game-winning goals against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round, a backbreaking period-ending one-timer in Game 2 against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the conference finals, and the game-winning goal in Game 7 against the Lightning, Ovechkin has flat-out delivered when the Caps need him to.
It’s taken the captain thirteen years to get here, showing resiliency and utterly Sisyphusean determination. He’s inarguably one of the greatest players in NHL history. You’re telling me he’s not on the short-short-shortlist for the Conn Smythe Trophy if the Capitals win the Cup?
Oh, sweet-faced Youth. Ye who know not of the cavernous depths of heartbreak, and instead not but the shimmering joy of Bird Celly-ing into the conference finals. Our Kid Icarus, soaring ever higher on wings made of primary points.
In fact, as good as fellow linemate Alex Ovechkin has been, Evgeny Kuznetsov may have the better numbers.
At even-strength, Kuzy has been a doozy. He leads the Capitals in 5v5 points-per-60 (2.49), primary assists-per-60 (0.96), assists (7), and he’s been on the ice for more goals than any other Capitals skater (18).
What’s more, he leads all players in the Final with 23 points, 13 of which have come at even-strength (also most in the Final). He’s played more minutes (408.73) than any other forward left in the playoffs, and his average time-on-ice of 21:31 per game leads the Capitals.
What’s that? You want to talk big moments?
Cool, let’s talk big moments.
Big like tying the game in the third period of Game 5 against the Pittsburgh Penguins to lift Washington to a win?
Big like beating Matt Murray five-hole on a breakaway in overtime to send the Capitals to their first conference final in 20 years?
Big like 10 points in 7 games against the Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final to send Washington to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in two decades?
Say what you will about The Boy Who Scored, but don’t say he hasn’t been one of the biggest reasons the Capitals are four wins away from glory.
Enjoy the ride, folks, as Washington looks to claim its first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
So, what do you think? Who should be the Capitals’ leader for the Conn Smythe Trophy?