Friday Blog Dump: A Nashville Cup Final was a best case scenario for the game, then Vegas went on a run

New thing: Friday blog dump. Basically a weekly blog touching upon a bunch of different stuff that drops every Friday. Here’s the debut.

The saying is lightning doesn’t strike twice. Don’t tell that to the NHL.

The past two installments of the Stanley Cup Playoffs have ceded itself to the league stumbling into a pot of gold, last season by way of the Nashville Predators reaching the Stanley Cup Final then this year with the Vegas Golden Knights reaching.

The game of hockey and the most iconic trophy in sports sells itself. But the additional sideshow and atmosphere these two markets have provided have brought the Stanley Cup to another level of excitement.

In Nashville, it was the party-like scene, the college football-like environment. The catfish being thrown on the ice. The country music presence the city brought to the final. The culture of the city injected itself into the Stanley Cup Final as opposed to the Stanley Cup Final injecting itself into the culture of the city.

It’s been taken to another level this year in Las Vegas.  The pregame shows have been wild going all the way back to the start of the playoffs. From the knights skating around in full armor, to the drumline, to the added features from game to game, with an Imagine Dragons concert one night to Michael Buffer another.

Another layer of curiosity comes with it. You get stories of how it all comes together. You get stories of the culture of these cities and how it ties in. You hear from locals and what the team means to them and the community.

Does every city need to do a production like this? Not necessarily. I thought Jeff Marek made a good point on the 31 Thoughts Podcast that a place like Montreal should sell their history and tradition, and would (and has) put on a good show from that standpoint. The same can be said in places like Boston, Toronto, Detroit, Chicago, and New York. But the new cities that have come into the mix have added a new element and formed their own identity through it.

Is it for everybody? No, which is fine. But I feel those that have objected to these ceremonies are in a stark minority. Most have no problem, many can’t get enough of it.

Bottom line is this has people tuning in that wouldn’t have before. It has people talking about hockey and the NHL that usually wouldn’t be. And that’s a big win for the game.

Callahan out 5 months

The Lightning announced on Thursday that Ryan Callahan is expected to miss five months after undergoing shoulder surgery, which puts him out for about the first month of next season.

Another injury for a guy that has battled quite a few since arriving in Tampa from the Rangers via the captain-for-captain deal that sent Martin St. Louis to New York in 2014. He had a really strong postseason for the Lightning, with that fourth line of Callahan, Cedric Paquette, and Chris Kunitz playing a big role in the Bolts getting within one win of the Stanley Cup Final.

Callahan, 33, has two seasons remaining on his deal. Hopefully the Lightning can string together a Cup run between now and then. That’s a guy who you want to see win one. And he’d be one of the first – if not the first – to receive the Stanley Cup from Steven Stamkos.

NCAA coaches going pro

We’ve seen two NCAA head coaches get NHL jobs in the past month, with Denver head coach Jim Montgomery going to the Stars and BU head coach David Quinn going to the Rangers. There was a lower-profile hiring this week when the Wheeling Nailers – the ECHL affiliate of the Penguins – announced the hiring of former Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy.

Dennehy was relieved of his duties at Merrimack in a surprise move following the 2017-18 season. He took over the program in 2005 and brought it to heights few felt it could reach, with the program fielding teams that were among the best in the nation earlier this decade. They fell off a little bit in recent years, but they’ve still managed to be competitive.

It will be interesting to see what he does in the pros.

Things you should read

*Well done piece by SI.com’s Charlotte Wilder on the fast-growing Las Vegas community and giving a face to its people.

*Golden Knights assistant GM Kelly McCrimmon looks to join his late brother, Brad, on the Stanley Cup.

*A look at what the Seattle expansion club would look like if it were drafted today.

*The current state of the relationship between Capitals GM Brian MacLellan and Golden Knights GM George McPhee.

*The Golden Knights form a strong bond with the first responders of the October 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas.

Taking you out of the blog and into the weekend: Fights between Tom Wilson and Ryan Reaves

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25 Lars Ellers and you win every year

The role Lars Eller plays on this Capitals team is one that typically goes overlooked and unnoticed.

Until Nicklas Backstrom goes down with a hand injury. Or Evgeny Kuznetsov is injured on a hit from Brayden McNabb.

Eller can play anywhere in the lineup. He’s as capable of playing top-line minutes as he is doing the third and fourth-line grunt work. He can play wing if such a need is necessary. The quintessential swiss army knife. When top players go down, which is not uncommon in the relentless, unforgiving two-month path to the Cup, a player like that proves invaluable.

Never was that more on display than in Wednesday’s Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final, a 3-2 Capitals win that evened the series 1-1.

Kuznetsov was lost for the game after being injured on a hit from McNabb during the first period. That led to Backstrom being bumped up to Kuznetsov’s spot on the top line between Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson while Eller came up to the line Backstrom centered between Jakub Vrana and T.J. Oshie, a trio that was coming off a strong effort in Game 1 despite the loss for Washington. Eller went on to score a goal and while getting a pair of primary assists, both of which were textbook passes to Ovechkin and Brooks Orpik, respectively.

The type of puck movement that will be shown to kids at hockey camps this summer.

Eller could’ve had a point or two more, as well. It didn’t matter who he was playing with, whether it was his third-line flanks Andre Burakovsky and Brett Connolly, second-line partners Oshie and Vrana, or Ovechkin and Backstrom on the powerplay, whenever Eller was on the ice, he was making things happen. The tape on his stick was in lockstep with the puck. It was just one of those nights.

And it’s been one of those postseasons for Eller, who has 17 points (6-11) in 21 games in these playoffs. He filled in admirably when Backstrom went down during the Second Round and missed four games. He took over the game on Wednesday when Kuznetsov went down.

It’s the type of player Eller is, going back to when he was in Montreal. A guy who can play anywhere, and with anyone. And he’s been every bit of that and more this postseason for Washington.

Play of the night

Nothing in sports makes fans jump out of their seats, makes social media blow up quite like a paddle save during the third period of a playoff game.

What a save by Holtby. Save of the playoffs. A once-every-five-years type of save.

And what a night for Holtby, who finished with 37 saves on 39 shots, bouncing back from a rough Game 1. He outplayed Marc-Andre Fleury after Fleury got the upper-hand on Monday with a big third period. Like they say, the game should be called goalie.

Other thoughts

*The Capitals won the first Stanley Cup Final game in their franchise history on Wednesday night.

*This guarantees the Caps won’t be swept like they were in 1998 by the Red Wings. That 1998 Cup Final was the last time there was a sweep in the Stanley Cup.

*Lots of tempers boiling over with quite a few scrums, including one after the final horn sounded to end the game. It was something you could sense coming, with a lot of physical, even chippy play through these first two games.

*Shea Theodore has had two really strong outings to begins the series. It was nice to see him rewarded with a goal in the third period. Here’s a good look at how the 22-year-old is establishing himself as a full-time NHLer after a couple years of shuttling back and forth between the NHL and AHL.

*Through two games the game-winning goals have gone to Tomas Nosek and Brooks Orpik. I gave you guys the heads up that would probably happen but nobody would listen.

*For Orpik: 1st goal in 221 games, regular season and playoffs, dating back to 2016. First goal in 56 playoff games stretching back to 2014.

*The last time Brooks Orpik scored a goal, Las Vegas had not yet been awarded a franchise.

*James Neal opened the scoring on a great shot that stung the top corner to give the Golden Knights a 1-0 lead 7:58 in. This was the shot of the night.

*Hard hat: Matt Niskanen – Didn’t show up on the scoresheet but put up plenty of crooked numbers in other categories, with three shots, four hits, and blocking a shot. He played a game-high 27:13, including 5:25 of shorthanded time.

*Speaking of which, big night of penalty killing for the Capitals, who held the Golden Knights to one powerplay goal on five opportunities. The effort was highlighted by killing off a 1:09-long 5-on-3 during the third period.

*One last thought: A sneak preview at Game 3 on Saturday night – Vegas is 3-0 following losses in these playoffs, with Marc-Andre Fleury allowing seven goals on 103 shots. Meanwhile the Capitals are 4-5 at home this postseason.

Be sure to send in your ‘Tom Wilson scores game-winning goal in Game 2’ prop bets

The league hasn’t said anything official yet, but virtually all the reports indicate that Tom Wilson will not have a hearing for his hit on Jonathan Marchessault on Monday night.

I think it’s the right call. I’ll say what I wrote earlier. It was worthy of a penalty, it was needless, even predatory, but it wasn’t worthy of a suspension. Obviously his history doesn’t help. Wilson has become public enemy No. 1 in many circles during these playoffs following a series of incidents, which was highlighted by a three-game suspension in the Second Round for a hit on Penguins forward Zach Aston-Reese.

Many feel a suspension, or at very least a hearing, was warranted for Wilson. But the reaction to the hit could’ve been based upon the way you saw it.

For instance, if you it this way, it looks really, really bad. Even indefensible.

But here’s the blowup of how it happened in real time.

Marchessault makes the pass and gets caught standing straight up in the middle of the ice when he’s blown up by Wilson. Again, not saying it was legal. Not saying I even liked it. Late hit? For sure. Penalty? Absolutely.

But on the list of plays I’ve seen over the years, this one ranks pretty low on the category of ‘dirty and dangerous.’

Can’t wait to see how the world reacts should Wilson do anything of consequence in the remaining games of this series. I’m sure it will be very measured and rational.

Ryan Reaves should win the Conn Smythe

Fourth liners win championships.

Forget superstars. Forget goaltending. Forget skill players, depth down the middle, No. 1 defensemen. Am I right?

You need guys like Ryan Reaves. Or Tomas Nosek. Guys like Shawn Thornton, Dan Hinote. Don’t trust people that tell you otherwise.

Once again it was the fourth liners stepping up on Monday night, providing the offense for the Golden Knights in the third period and lifting Vegas to a 6-4 win over the Caps in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Reaves got it going 2:41 into the third period – after Tom Wilson scored 1:10 in to give the Caps a 4-3 lead – an absolute snipe (with a side of a crosscheck, but ignore that) on a goal created by Nosek winning the puck battle with Michal Kempny and shoveling the puck out to Reaves in front.

Then in the middle of the period, Nosek wandered away from John Carlson and waited on the back door to one-time a beauty of a pass from Shea Theodore.

Nosek added an empty netter in the final seconds to pad his stats.

In all seriousness, I love this Golden Knights fourth line of Reaves, Nosek, and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. Old-fashioned, blue-collar line. They’re big, they’re physical, they like to get their hands dirty.

And Reaves has been great ever since being inserted into the lineup against the Sharks in the Second Round. He hits everything in sight, he’s making impactful plays on the ice. Now he has goals in back-to-back games. If it was easy, everybody would do it.

Tom Wilson is in trouble again

The Tom Wilson hit on Jonathan Marchessault was needless, illegal, predatory, you know all buzzwords.

It was late, Marchessault was unsuspecting, and Wilson came from a long way away. But suspendible? Please. It should’ve been a penalty, but the head wasn’t targeted and Marchessault returned to the game after going off briefly. Yes, Wilson has a history and isn’t deserving of the benefit of the doubt.  But not everything needs to be a suspension.

And while we’re on it, stop with the ‘Tom Wilson doesn’t belong in the NHL’ nonsense. He’s a huge part of that top line for the Capitals, and is a really good hockey player that plays a hard, punishing game. Try to keep up here.

Play of the night

This assist by T.J. Oshie. Looked like he was going to shoot but pulled it back to John Carlson who had a wide-open net after Marc-Andre Fleury bit on Oshie.

Another great game for Oshie, who has been one of the Capitals best players in these playoffs after a tough regular season. With two assists on Monday, Oshie now has 17 points in 20 games this postseason.

Other thoughts

*If Monday night showed us anything, it was that this is going to be a long, hard-fought, back-and-forth series. Which is why Vegas will probably win this series in 5.

*Colin Miller in these playoffs: 3 goals, all on the powerplay.

*Fans were treated to a Bruins alumni game in the first half of the game, with Miller, Brett Connolly, and Reilly Smith factoring in four of the game’s first five goals. Miller and Connolly opened the scoring for their respective teams while Smith assisted on William Karlsson’s goal with 1:41 left in the first period – Smith took the shot that banked off the back wall and onto the stick of Karlsson leading to the goal – and added another 3:21 into the second period.

*Not the best outing for Marc-Andre Fleury, allowing four goals on 28 shots despite the win. With that said, it was Fleury coming up big when it counted, as has been the case for much of these playoffs, making nine saves in the third period. He didn’t allow a goal after Tom Wilson’s tally 1:10 into the third period. It’s all about when you make the saves this time of year.

*Hard hat: Deryk Engelland – two assists, plus-two rating, five shots in 20:50 of time-on-ice, logging a game-high 1:40 of shorthanded time.

*One more note on the Vegas fourth line: They finished a plus-eight to go along with their combined three goals, seven shots on net, and six hits.

*One last thought: The pre-game ceremony didn’t disappoint. Electric. I love what the Golden Knights have brought into the NHL, and loved the experience the Predators provided last year. A majority of fans do too. Those that don’t are just a loud, obnoxious minority. Don’t give those people the attention.

Stanley Cup Final: The Storylines

We all predicted this back in October, right?

A Capitals team that had to make up for the losses of Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams, Daniel Winnik, Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner, and Nate Schmidt (to Vegas no less) and while the top of its roster was back and they would make the playoffs, it looked like there would be a rebuild there to some extent.

Meanwhile Vegas was just building. Yes, there were pieces. Marc-Andre Fleury was as good a starting block as you can find in net. James Neal was an established NHL veteran. Reilly Smith and Erik Haula had proven in recent years they could be impact players on competitive teams. Jonathan Marchessault was coming off a 30-goal season. Alex Tuch, Nate Schmidt, and Shea Theodore were talented youngsters with bright NHL futures.

Needless to say we didn’t see this back when the season started. Neither team was given much of a chance when the playoffs started back in April.

As I said in my playoff preview when building the case for the Golden Knights to get past the Kings, “We know nothing.”

It’s a theme that I’m sure won’t go away as these crazy, wild, unpredictable playoffs concludes with what should be fun Stanley Cup Final. Here’s some of the big storylines going in.

  1. New Blood – You’ll never see me complain about having to watch Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Patrick Kane, Anze Kopitar, or Drew Doughty in the Stanley Cup Final. With that said, a reprieve from the Penguins, Blackhawks, and Kings and getting new teams in the mix is refreshing. Neither team has won a Stanley Cup, the sixth time two teams that haven’t won one faced each other in the Cup Final, and first since 2007 when the Ducks played the Senators. Among that new blood is Alex Ovechkin, a player who – in case you hadn’t heard – has done a thing or two in this league.
  2. New Blood, like that team that didn’t exist until this year – Has it sunk in for anyone that this team made the Stanley Cup Final? I think this team was underestimated because simply nobody believed this could happen, but the Golden Knights are a legitimately good team that gelled from day one and has the luxury of playing in front of a great goaltender. But again, a roster that at this time last year hadn’t been assembled, a team that this time last year was still assembling the pieces to get the franchise off the ground. It’s the greatest sports story in years and best in hockey since the 1980 Miracle on Ice.
  3. Alex Ovechkin tries to get his Cup – So if you haven’t in fact heard about what Ovechkin has done since entering the NHL in 2005, here’s a quick rundown. 1,122 points, 607 goals, the greatest goal scorer of this generation and could be the greatest goal scorer ever. The one thing he hasn’t done is reached the Stanley Cup Final. After years of playoff disappointments in Washington that always seemed to fall upon the shoulders of Ovechkin, the Caps managed to get past the Second Round this season. The Capitals winning means not only erasing years and years of almost-getting-there, but the Great Eight cementing his legacy as one of the game’s all-time greats.
  4. One last demon to exorcise for the Capitals – It’s been a postseason of exorcising demons for the Caps, the most notable of which was finally getting past the Penguins (the Capitals were previously 0-for-3 during the Crosby/Ovechkin era). With that victory came the daily double of getting past the Second Round, something Washington hadn’t done since 1998, despite reaching that round six times over that span. They came back from series deficits as opposed to blowing series leads. The Caps took a page out of the George Costanza playbook and just did the exact opposite of everything they’d done years prior. They went for the chicken salad on rye instead of the tuna on toast and ended up in the Cup Final.
  5. Marc-Andre Fleury – Fleury is in the Stanley Cup Final for the fifth time in his career, but comes in having not played in a Stanley Cup Final game since 2009, as he backed up Matt Murray the past two Finals with the Penguins. This postseason, in which Fleury has put up near-historic numbers, has been the highlight of what has been a redemption tour for the 33-year-old after he was cast off by the Penguins in favor of Murray and taken by Vegas in the Expansion Draft. A Vegas win would virtually guarantee that Fleury wins the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
  6. Home-ice advantage vs Road Warriors – The road team has won 42 of the 79 games so far in these Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the Capitals are the face of that trend with a 8-2 road record this postseason. Meanwhile, the Golden Knights are the one team that has bucked the trend, with a 6-1 record on home ice.
  7. George McPhee – The Golden Knights GM as the architect of what has been the most successful inaugural season in the history of sports. He was also the architect of this Capitals team. Serving as the general manager in Washington from 1997-2014, it was McPhee who drafted Alex Ovechkin 1st overall in 2004, Nicklas Backstrom 4th overall in 2006, John Carlson 27th overall in 2008, Evgeny Kuznetsov 26th overall in 2010, and Tom Wilson 16th overall in 2012. Braden Holtby was taken in the 4th round of the 2008 draft. Other players drafted under McPhee’s watch includes Andre Burakovsky, Dmitry Orlov, and Chandler Stephenson. Jay Beagle was signed as an undrafted free agent in March 2008. McPhee also drafted current Golden Knight Cody Eakin in the 3rd round in 2009 and signed Vegas blueline ace Nate Schmidt as an undrafted free agent in April 2013.
  8. Nate Schmidt – The former Capital is the Golden Knights top defensemen has been one of the best blueliners in these playoffs. He plays in all situations and faces the best opposing teams have to offer. It will be his job to shut down the top line of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Tom Wilson.

Stanley Cup Final: Why the Capitals win

Is this the Caps year?

Well, four wins shy of the Stanley Cup is the closest they’ve ever come. This is the second time the franchise has been to the Cup Final, the first time coming in 1998 when they were swept by the Red Wings. But anyone who has followed knows what the Capitals are about – always there but never getting over the hump. Well, after years of not being able to get past the Penguins or the Rangers, Washington finally broke through.

So can they do it?

The first thing that pops off the page when you look at Vegas is Marc-Andre Fleury, who is riding a heater in net right now. Whether the Capitals can beat him remains to be seen, but they have what it takes to match him in Braden Holtby. Holtby has gone 12-5 in his 17 starts this postseason, and recorded back-to-back shutouts in Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Final to get the Capitals past the Lightning.

Alex Ovechkin looks like someone that is refusing to be denied in these playoffs. He was the best player on the ice in the final two games of the East Final, elevating his game to an even higher level. The 32-year-old, who is in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in a career that has spanned 13 seasons with 1,003 regular season games, 1,122 points and 607 goals in addition to another 116 games, 112 points, and 58 goals in the postseason. Of the all-time great players across what has been a century of NHL play, a handful of those names are missing from the Stanley Cup. Ovechkin is one of those names, and he’s doing everything in his power to make sure his name gets on it in the coming weeks.

Then you look to the right of Ovechkin. Evgeny Kuznetsov has been spectacular in his own right. He’s got a playoff-high 24 points (11-13) in 19 games. Kuznetsov etched himself into Capitals lore when he scored the game-winner in overtime of Game 6 in the Second Round to officially push the Caps past the Penguins.

This team is deep and physical, especially on the back end, and unlike previous years came into the playoffs under the radar and playing their best hockey of the season.

Washington has had guys step up in big spots and have had bounces go in their favor – two things that didn’t seem to happen in years past.

In sports, not just in hockey, you can sometimes sense when a team is on a run that is going to end with a title. When it’s ‘their year’, for lack of a better term.

It’s a sense I get with this Capitals team.

Player that puts the Capitals over the top: Tom Wilson – Wilson gets a bad wrap because of his style of play and has a history of suspensions and suspendible plays. Does Tom Wilson play a predatory game? Yes. Is Tom Wilson a good hockey player capable of making impactful plays and playing big minutes? Yes. As hard as it is for some people to grasp, both of those things can be true. Playing on the right side of the Caps first line with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, Wilson had 12 points in 16 games. His absence was felt on that top line when he was suspended for three games during the Second Round against the Penguins.

Stanley Cup Final: Why the Golden Knights win

The biggest reason Vegas wins the Stanley Cup? Look no further than the crease.

Marc-Andre Fleury has been unconscious this postseason. He enters his fifth career Stanley Cup Final appearance with a 12-3 record, a 1.68 GAA, .947 save percentage, and four shutouts in these playoffs. And it’s not just what Fleury has done but how and when he has done it. Here’s a breakdown of his numbers:

  • In three series openers: 2-1, 4 goals allowed on 89 shots (.955 save percentage), 2 shutouts
  • With a chance to take a series lead: 5-1, .939 save percentage, 1.97 GAA, 2 shutouts
  • With a chance to close out a series: 3-0, 1 goal allowed on 91 shots (.989 save percentage), 2 shutouts
  • Following losses: 3-0, 7 goals allowed on 103 shots (.932 save percentage)
  • At home: 6-1, .950 save percentage, 1.50 GAA, 2 shutouts
  • Fleury has stopped 32 of 33 shots faced in the three overtimes the Golden Knights have gone to, two of which they’ve won.

Fleury is the backbone every championship team needs. His performance is reminiscent of recent championship performances from Tim Thomas in 2011 for the Bruins, or Jonathan Quick for the Kings in 2012 and 2014.

But the biggest thing Vegas does? They adjust really well. In the Western Conference Final, they saw a big, fast Winnipeg team that played a heavy, skilled game. The Golden Knights looked overmatched in Game 1. Then they came back to win four straight.  They do a great job handling whatever is thrown at them.

The Golden Knights are a tough opponent to play anywhere, but they’re especially tough to play at home. Vegas feeds off that crowd and that rink is built in a way that makes it a good home ice advantage. It’s proven in their record, as the Golden Knights have won six of seven home contests in these playoffs after going 29-10-2 during the regular season.

Up front, the Golden Knights forwards really drive the bus. There’s really good balance across lines one through four and they run a really heavy, relentless forecheck that teams have had trouble with all season. The top line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith have been the best forward line in these playoffs, combining for 47 points (16-31) through the first three rounds. But again, you’ve got nine other forwards to worry about once you get past that trio. Good luck with that.

And finally, saving the most obvious and least analytical for last – this team has that ‘team of destiny’ feel to it. We’re just realizing it now, but we’ve spent the past year slowly watching a Hollywood script unfold before our eyes. First they were going to be terrible, then they weren’t going to sustain their fast start, then they weren’t going to beat the Kings in the First Round, then the Sharks in the Second Round, and no way were they going to beat the Jets in the West Final. The movie simply can’t end with a loss in the Stanley Cup Final. Anybody who knows anything understands that’s not how it works.

Player the puts the Golden Knights over the top: Nate Schmidt – The 26-year-old played 200 games with the Capitals from 2013-17 and was hidden in a blueline corps that included John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik, Dmitry Orlov, and Kevin Shattenkirk. He was lost to the Golden Knights and has stepped into a No. 1 defenseman role. In these playoffs, he’s a plus-seven in an average time on ice of 24:53, taking on opposing top lines at five-on-five while getting a lot of time on the special teams units.