Stanley Cup Final preview: Who will win their first Cup, Knights or Capitals?

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Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin has made it past the second round for the first time in his illustrious career. (AP Photo)

For more than four decades, the Washington Capitals have perfected the art of the collapse — 3-1 series leads squandered, Presidents’ Trophy seasons wasted, division championships rendered meaningless, Game 7s lost over and over again. The Capitals have been to the Stanley Cup Final just once before, in 1998, and the 20 years since have been a near-perennial tale of regular-season dominance and postseason heartbreak.

Yet here stand the Capitals, led by one of the greatest — and most unfairly maligned — goal-scorers in league history, Alexander Ovechkin, on the precipice of glory. After their championship window had supposedly closed, no less.

Yet they’re not even close to the most surprising storyline of this remarkable Stanley Cup Final.

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Washington’s opponent? A team that didn’t exist a year ago. The Vegas Golden Knights, expected to be a laughingstock like almost every other expansion team before them — despite some recent revisionist history by some embittered fan bases around the league — raced out to an 8-1-0 start and never regressed. They won the Pacific Division handily, swept the battle-tested Kings, knocked off the Sharks in six games, and grounded the high-flying Jets in five.

Anything can happen in hockey, and it usually does. But nobody saw this one coming, not even Vegas general manager George McPhee, who deftly built both of these teams. Here’s a look at some of the X-factors that should determine which franchise will win its first-ever Stanley Cup — the one that’s been trying in vain for 43 seasons, or the one that’s 11 months old.

Net gains

The playoffs almost always come down to goaltending, and nobody’s been better than Vegas’ Marc-Andre Fleury, who is the clear front-runner for the Conn Smythe Trophy. In fact, he’s been so ridiculously good — 12-3 with a .947 save percentage and 1.68 goals-against average — he very well could pull a Jean-Sebastien Giguere (2003) and be named the postseason MVP even if the Capitals win the Cup. Fleury, a three-time champ (though Matt Murray was in net for the last two Penguins clinchers) quickly became the face of the Golden Knights franchise, and he has lived up to the billing. The Capitals exorcized their Penguins demons with their Game 7 victory in the second round, but familiar-foe Fleury still looms large.

Meanwhile, Braden Holtby, the 2016 Vezina Trophy winner as the league’s best goalie, didn’t even start the playoffs as Washington’s No. 1. But he quickly took the job back from Philipp Grubauer after the Capitals fell behind 2-0 to the Blue Jackets in the first round, and has been outstanding since. Holtby has a .923 save percentage and a 2.04 GAA. But this is the first time he has been past the second round, so Fleury has a big edge in big-game experience.

Depth charge

Vegas’ top line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith — former Blackhawks GM Dale Tallon has been raked over the coals for pushing Marchessault and Smith out the door in Florida in the expansion draft — has been spectacular in these playoffs, combining for 16 goals and 31 assists in 15 playoff games. But nobody else on the Knights roster has more than nine points, with Alex Tuch (six goals), James Neal (four goals) and Erik Haula (three) providing the only real offense beyond the top trio.

That doesn’t bode well against a Capitals team that managed to shut down the high-octane Penguins and Lightning. Heck, the Capitals shut out the Lightning in Game 6 and Game 7, holding them without a shot on goal for the first 11 minutes of the third period in Game 7, when Tampa Bay was at peak desperation.

The Capitals, meanwhile, have benefitted from splitting up longtime running buddies Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. Ovechkin has 12 goals in 19 games, Evgeny Kuznetsov has 11, and seven other players have at least three. Vegas might need Fleury to keep playing at an otherworldly level to keep up.

Taking advantage

Ovechkin has made his living blasting one-timers from the left circle during power plays, and the Capitals have made it this far on the strength of that power play. They have 17 power-play goals on 59 opportunities, a sparkling 28.8-percent conversion rate. Ovechkin has four PPGs, and T.J. Oshie has five. Vegas, meanwhile, has been scoring at a meager 17.6-percent rate with the man advantage. Staying out of the penalty box will be key for the Knights.

On the flip side, Vegas has killed off a solid 82.5 percent of opposing power plays, while the Caps have killed off just 75.4 percent.

Rest vs. rust

By the time the puck drops on Monday night, it’ll have been eight days since the Knights last played. They had a five-day layoff after beating the Sharks, and another eight-day layoff after sweeping the Kings. They’re as rested and healthy as you can hope to be at this stage of the season. But any hockey player will tell you that your timing is the first thing to go during a long layoff, and that you simply can’t replicate game action — let alone Stanley Cup Final game action — in practice. This is especially true for goaltenders, so how Fleury responds to the time off could be decisive.

Washington, meanwhile, is coming off a grueling and physical seven-game series against the Lightning, which followed a tense and emotional six-game series with the rival Penguins. Backstrom is battling an apparent hand injury and missed the last two games of the Tampa Bay series. What do the Capitals have left in the tank? Well, as the 2015 Blackhawks learned, the adrenaline and emotion of a Stanley Cup Final sometimes can carry you through, even if you’re playing on fumes.

Prediction

From 500-to-1 long shots to 4-to-5 favorites, are the self-proclaimed “Golden Misfits” one of the greatest stories in modern sports history, or an utter embarrassment to the NHL? This is the debate raging in hockey circles over the past few weeks. It’s a silly one perpetuated by beleaguered fan bases who don’t believe Knights fans have “paid their dues” with years of misery, and who think the expansion draft was rigged in favor of Bill Foley’s $500-million franchise. Nonsense. The only people who should be embarrassed by the Knights are the many, many GMs around the league who got fleeced by McPhee, or who gave up on promising talent too quickly.

That said, the better story here is Ovechkin. Often derided by shortsighted pundits and fans as a choker, a lousy leader, a playoff bust, the 32-year-old superstar has been electrifying and dominant all postseason. One of the truly great goal-scorers in NHL history — he has 607 goals in 1,003 games in one of the lowest-scoring eras in league history — Ovechkin always has been somehow underappreciated, if not underrated. A Stanley Cup for Ovechkin would get him out of the Dan Marino/Charles Barkley conversation, and into the all-time legend conversation, where he belongs.

And in this most unlikely of postseasons, what better way for it to end than with Gary Bettman handing Ovechkin the prize that has eluded him and the Capitals for so long? After a Game 7, no less?

Lazerus’ pick: Capitals in 7.

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