The Vegas Golden Knights, unquestionably the best expansion team in the history of the National Hockey League, will play for a Stanley Cup in their inaugural season. They’ve more than earned their trip to the Final, and it will be fun to see how they – and their city – respond to the challenge.
Facing off against the upstart Nevadans are the Washington Capitals, a longtime NHL powerhouse that’s finally thrown off the yokes of bad luck and crushing expectations to make their first Stanley Cup Final since 1998.
The Final will be a battle of misfits and stars, of enthusiasm and experience, of explosive offense and some of the best in the business at locking it down.
Much has been made about how the Golden Knights came to be; how they managed to, with the deck stacked against them, assemble a championship-calibre team from the rejects and the unwanted of the rest of the league.
However, what’s even more amazing is the utter dearth of pedigree of the Golden Knights, both with regards to the regular season and, especially, the playoffs.
Here are how the playoff rosters (composed of all players that have played a game this postseason) of the Golden Knights and Capitals stacked up less than eight months ago, at the beginning of the 2017-18 season.
Pedigree of Golden Knights’, Capitals’ Forwards
Perhaps nothing surprised people more than the Golden Knights’ ability to generate offense. Vegas ranked fifth in the NHL during the regular season with 268 goals – 12 more than the ninth-place Capitals. And yet, looking at the history of the players that composed the first-year squad, you’d have been hard-pressed to predict such a finish.
As you can see, the Capitals’ forwards were outstripping those of the Golden Knights by almost 500 goals during regular-season play, and came close to doubling them in points.
Where it gets really crazy is when you look at postseason play, where a near-doubling of games played was accompanied by Capitals forwards having racked up more than twice the ice time, while also having scored more than twice the goals and points of the Golden Knights’ forward corps.
Pedigree of Golden Knights’, Capitals’ Defensemen
Such differences were even more pronounced on the back end.
The Golden Knights were not only fifth during the regular season in goals, but also a very reasonable eighth in goals against, allowing only 225, good enough for a plus-43 goal differential – fifth in the NHL.
Again, looking at the current Vegas defense corps, even the most knowledgeable hockey folk would find it difficult to tease out exactly how they got it done – on both sides of the puck, based on their numbers heading into the season.
The Capitals’ defensemen had nearly twice the regular-season ice time of the Golden Knights’ blue line coming into the year, with over four times the amount of time on ice in the playoffs.
The rest of the statistics are similarly incredible, with the Caps at least doubling the Golden Knights in all but one category, regular-season games played – where they collectively only had 43 percent more.
Pedigree of Golden Knights’, Capitals’ Goalies
As you might expect, goaltending is where the Golden Knights get one back, with Marc-André Fleury’s impressive résumé far outshining those of Capitals counterparts Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer combined, no Malcolm Subban necessary.
Fleury entered the year in 15th place on the NHL’s all-time wins list with 375 regular-season victories, and would climb to 11th (404) before the season was through. Fleury, nearly five years older than Holtby, has had his struggles at times during his career, but has rebounded to form – and beyond – in recent years.
Then of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Fleury outdueled Holtby and the Capitals in a nailbiting seven-game series last spring. Will he be able to do so again?
Pedigree of Golden Knights’, Capitals’ Coaching Staff
Finally, for the biggest discrepancy of them all, the head coaches of both teams:
Barry Trotz of the Capitals dwarfed Golden Knights bench boss Gerard Gallant at the beginning of the year, having racked up over four times as many NHL regular-season games – and wins – as a head coach.
The comparison of playoff games and wins was ever more lopsided, with Gallant having only six total postseason games to his credit as an NHL head coach, with a paltry two wins.
Of course, each have 12 victories this spring, and will be doing their darndest to poke and prod their squads to four more. For Gallant, his comparative inexperience will be lost to history if he brings home Lord Stanley’s Mug.
7 Games to Decide it All
So, there you have it.
At the beginning of the 2017-18 campaign, the Golden Knights simply looked like an inexperienced band of misfits with severely limited talent.
But that was then. This is now.
Both the Golden Knights and Capitals have had remarkable journeys this season, and each now sits just four wins away from being forever etched in history.
Yes, the discrepancies heading into the year between the respective rosters of the Golden Knights and Capitals were massive, as was the gulf in expectations between the two squads.
But that’s all academic now.
Peter Ferrell covers the Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs, with a side of jersey and logo (over)analysis, for The Hockey Writers.