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Rink Roundtable: The Stanley Cup Final Awaits

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Once more with feeling - the Rink crew talks about what to expect as the Caps get ready to play for the championship

2018 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Media Day Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Q1: The Caps are in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 20 years and second time in franchise history, having exorcised demons ranging from John Tortorella to the Penguins (which is like saying “ranging from a single devil to a team of devils,” but whatever) and having just beaten the best team in the Conference in their own building. Are you at all concerned about a letdown against Vegas? What other concerns do you have?

Rob: No concerns about a letdown. These guys are jazzed up and are gonna keep it rolling. Only concern is that Vegas also is not going to letdown, plays with team speed that nobody has been able to figure out yet, and look like they’ve got the mark of a charmed run. When you close out a series getting game winning goals from Reilly Smith on a 120 foot breakaway after Big Buff whiffs on a one-timer and then Ryan Reaves going bar down with the deflection you know things are going your way. Fleury also looks scary right now if I’m honest.

J.P.: For almost all of the Caps - players and coaches - this will be their first time playing for the Cup, so there shouldn’t be any concern about an emotional letdown (despite the obvious lack of traditional “rivalry” factors). Moreover, facing George McPhee should provide a bit of extra motivation for a lot of these guys. If anything, they may need to rein in their exuberance a bit (I’m looking at you, 43).

As for concerns, I’d echo Rob’s sentiment - Vegas is a team that has buzzsawed through some pretty good Western Conference teams with that perfect combination of good play and good fortune… as the Caps have, to a slightly lesser extent, in the East. So the concern is pretty straightforward: that Vegas is actually good (which they are).

Pepper: Also not worried about any letdown. Having “exorcised the demons” almost three weeks ago (!), this team hasn’t really eased up, except for *maybe* that beginning of Game 5 last Saturday. I’m also concerned about VGK’s speed and depth (that “coming at you in waves” stuff), the magical run for them, and that their “team” has got to be as tight-knit and focused a bunch as are the Caps.

The other factor is that VGK likes to play a style similar to what the Caps have adopted this season: being opportunistic and conservative in the neutral zone, waiting to break up the rush and pounce on a counter-attack. Vegas has made opponents that are too aggressive on the forecheck pay big-time. I don’t want to see the Caps get frustrated and get burned, because it will be tempting.

Jason: No way. Not a chance. Vegas may come out and prove to be the more talented team, but if Washington loses, it won’t be because the Capitals were “satisfied” and “took the series off.” The only concern - the ONLY concern - I might have is health and focus. The Capitals played 82 regular season games this year, and now 19 playoffs games. That’s 101 dalmatians, folks, and we saw how much better the Caps were when Nicklas Backstrom returned from the ethereal plane of hand injury. They need their best players in the lineup, and they need them right now.

As for focus, that’s one hell of a mental grind as well, with emotional ups and downs that we as fans can only imagine (okay, that’s not entirely true…). I’m sure this team is exhausted, physically and mentally. But immortality is four wins away. Go take it.

Hobeck: No, I don’t envision a letdown. There could have been one after making the playoffs as relatively unlikely Metro Division champs for the third straight year - granted, there almost was. There could have been one after they survived to beat the Jackets, but they came out firing on all cylinders for 55 of the first 60 minutes against the Penguins and had control of the series most of the way. There could have been one when they dismantled their two biggest demons in the second round against Pittsburgh, but they started as strongly as they could have been asked to against Tampa Bay and survived a strong rally. The between-the-ears stuff isn’t a problem for this group.

Kevin: Insofar as the “letdown” implies lack of preparation and/or motivation, of course not. We’ve already seen more emotion out of some of this team’s mainstays than we ever have. That train’s not going to stop somewhere after the Conference Final but before the Cup Final. The concerns that I do have center around being able to stay out of the box and being able to win in front of the hometown fans. You’re gonna have a maximum of three games at Capital One Arena in this series. With how tough T-Mobile Arena has proven to play at, best make ‘em count.

Q2: Who or what do you see as being the single most important factor for the Caps against the Golden Knights?

Rob: Whoever plays against the Knights’ top line. They get scoring across the lines but they are clearly driven by that top line and so far they’ve been able to play with speed in open ice and feist off of turnovers. My guess is Backstrom or Eller gets the task, and both of them are going to have a speed disadvantage so will need to find a way to bring the game to their pace.

J.P.: I’ll take the easy answer - it’s Braden Holtby. All he’s done so far in this playoff run is defeat the two-time and reigning Vezina Trophy winner, the two-time reigning Cup champ, and a current Vezina finalist. Now he faces the prohibitive Conn Smythe favorite for all the Tostitos. If Holtby can outplay Marc-Andre Fleury, the Caps’ chances of winning are going to be great. If not, it’s going to be a heavy lift for the guys in front of him.

Jason: Like a little league ballfield, this one is all about the backstops. If Braden Holtby outduels Marc-Andre Fleury, the Capitals will win. The two or three games in the Eastern Conference Finals that Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy was noticeably better than Braden Holtby, the Bolts won. Hell, even most of Game 7, Holtby kept the Capitals in contention with some head-standing that would make Cirque du Soleil jealous. He needs to come up big in this, the biggest moment in franchise history.

The ship of Victory will not ride on Holtby alone, but he will be the navigator.

Pepper: Patience, which they seem to have plenty of this post-season. Willingness to stay in structure. But close-second factor is whichever dynamite netminder makes a mistake, and whether those even out between Holts and Flower.

Hobeck: Has to be the power play. That unit is converting at 28.8 clip so far this postseason, only trailing the Bruins’ absurd 36.4. Thanks in large part to Fleury, however, the Knights’ penalty kill is largely doing its job at 82.5. By comparison, Pittsburgh’s PK% was 83.3 - an insignificant difference with as small of a sample size as we’re getting in a four-to-seven game series. If Ovechkin, Kuznetzov, et al. keep their heads above water and are even serviceable with a man up, Pennsylvania Avenue’s gonna be a little more crowded than usual in a couple of weeks.

Kevin: Fresh take on an old answer: it’s about goaltending, but not necessarily about Holtby. Sure it’d be great if 70 came out and wilted the flower, building upon the back to back shutouts with which he closed out the Tampa Bay Lightning, but more necessary is that Fleury comes back to earth. If that guy manages to pull another couple weeks of .950 play out from his you-know-where, everything else is academic.

Q3: How about a bold (non-results) prediction for the series - an X-factor, unsung hero, etc.?

Rob: Jakub Vrana stops being *thiiiiiiiiis* close and finally breaks through.

J.P.: Flashback to the 2016-17 season in which the Caps’ third line of Andre Burakovsky, Lars Eller and Brett Connolly posted a 58.9 Corsi-For percentage and a 72.7 Goals-For percentage in 264 minutes. Smashcut to this year’s playoffs and that same trio is at 59.1 CF% (no goals either way) in just 13 minutes, most of which has come in the last two games (which, you may recall, the Caps won). Burakovsky was one of ECF Game 7’s big heroes, Eller was heroic at the end of the Pens series and early against the Bolts (before turning into a penalty machine), and Connolly has potted a couple of goals in each of the last two series. If that line can click and contribute, that should be huge for the Caps.

Pepper: The intensity and physicality of this series will reach a point where an impact player gets suspended, and it won’t be Top Line Tommy.

Jason: Marc-Andre Fleury misplays a puck behind the net and gives up a goal. Book that sh*t.

It used to be that ol’ Fleur de Lisp was good for at least one of those a series. A puckhandling goaltender can be a major asset; Braden Holtby improves the Capitals transition game by changing the geometry of breakouts and giving them truly six pivots on the ice. But Fleury...well, he’s just not good at it, and no one seems to want to tell him.

Marc-Andre my words: the Caps will get one junk goal these series because Flower wilts with the puck.

Hobeck: Each goalie will have at least one shutout.

Kevin: Brooks Orpik scores his first goal since February 2016. That’s 172 games ago, including playoffs, since 44 tickled the twine (He’s scored 2 goals in 144 career playoff games. Bold enough for you?)

Q4: So… what’s your prediction for the Stanley Cup Final?

J.P.: This Cinderella expansion bullshit stops right here. Caps win it on home ice in Game 6.

Rob: Fine, Vegas is charmed. Caps just rolled three of the best even-strength teams in the league and made it look easier as they went along. Caps, six.

Pepper: Having come this far, this Caps group won’t be denied, and have absolutely crushed it on the road. They’ll take two in Vegas and finish the job on the night of June 4th, before a delirious crowd who all decide that tickets were worth every penny they all charged to their Capital One cards.

But don’t let me see any of you anywhere near a broom until then. Do you HEAR me? The hockey gods are real. Coach Trotz said so.

Jason: *clears throat, taps microphone, leans in* The Capitals will win the Stanley Cup.

Becca: This is the year they win it. This is the series they do it on home ice. Caps in six.

Hobeck: I’m gonna have some fun with this. The Caps win the first game by two with an empty-netter and take Game 2 in OT before heading back to The Vault. Vegas scores late in the third to win Game 3 by one, before Washington cruises to a Game 4 win and sets up a meeting with the final boss that they have yet to face these playoffs: a 3-1 series lead. Of course they lose in Vegas to scare the hell out of everybody. But June 10 will be a super Sunday for D.C. fans as they celebrate a world title at home for the first time since the 1942 Redskins did so at Griffith Stadium.

Kevin: I picked Columbus in 7, Pittsburgh in 7, and Tampa in 7. So...Vegas in 7, obviously.