What We Learned: Can Washington out-Vegas Vegas?

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/players/4986/" data-ylk="slk:Evgeny Kuznetsov">Evgeny Kuznetsov</a> will be crucial as the Caps look to take a stranglehold in Game 4. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Evgeny Kuznetsov will be crucial as the Caps look to take a stranglehold in Game 4. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

How did Vegas get to the Cup Final?

There are a lot of prescriptive answers people want to apply here, but the shortest and easiest of them is, “Their top line was great and their goalie stole a ton of games.”

That is, basically, what it boils down to. Marc-Andre Fleury entered the series with a .947 save percentage, and some combination of Riley Smith, Jonathan Marchessault, and William Karlsson were on the ice for 27 goals-for and just 13 against. When a team wins that many one-goal games, having your top forwards go plus-14 in about 436 minutes and your goalie become a brick wall is vital.

Digging a little deeper, Vegas did bring a strong team game to the table, not necessarily creating but certainly preventing scoring chances — which obviously helped Fleury — and getting the occasional timely goal when the top forwards weren’t on the ice. The list of third- and fourth-line heroes that cropped up for a game or two then faded into the background again is fairly well-known at this point.

That’s a pretty strong recipe for success, as we’ve seen.

This is all important to keep in mind because, well, in Games 2 and 3, Washington played that kind of Vegas-y style, though perhaps with less of an importance placed on getting up and down the ice all that quickly. The top line has been phenomenal, even without Evgeny Kuznetsov for a big chunk of Game 2. In Game 3 in particular, Alex Ovechkin was a man on a mission; in all situations the Caps outshot Vegas 11-3 with the greatest pure goalscorer of all time on the ice, and outchanced them 15-8. In Games 2 and 3, no one on Washington’s top line has been on the ice for a goal against.

A big part of that success comes because Braden Holtby has effectively assumed the role of Marc-Andre Fleury, while Fleury assumed the role of 2012 Marc-Andre Fleury (he’s .875 in the Cup Final). After a shaky Game 1, which Washington lost by a thin margin despite his poor performance, Holtby has conceded just three goals on 61 shots. That kind of performance is gonna win you a lot of hockey games.

The Caps’ role players, meanwhile, are doing more or less okay, holding their own in terms of goals (3-3 in Games 2 and 3) but getting pretty badly out-chanced. This, I think, has something to do with the idea that Brooks Orpik or players of his ilk can be valuable even if they’re getting out-attempted and out-chanced because of the quality of the shots Vegas has been getting off. Indeed, the Golden Knights attempted 133 shots in these last two games, but of that number, just 61 were on net, and 55 attempts were from scoring areas.

You might call that playing with fire, especially because it’s not exactly the Vegas formula, but when you have guys like Lars Eller and Devante Smith-Pelly stepping up and scoring big goals, while Holtby continues to be lights out, maybe it doesn’t matter that much. This year’s Washington team has always been notable for the fact that it wasn’t nearly as deep as previous Caps teams that failed long before getting to two wins away from a Stanley Cup. But when you have elite scorers and an elite goalie, you can maybe be forgiven for trying to white-knuckle your way to a few Ws.

At the other end of the ice, Vegas continues to get that elite performance from its top line (all-situations shot attempts with all three of them on the ice in the last two games: 45-10), but little else. When they’re off, Vegas is getting marginally out-attempted and outshot, outscored 4-2, and is giving up far too many high-danger chances. More to the point, the various Smith/Marchessault/Karlsson combos have generated 10 high-dangers in about 50 minutes, while the rest of the team has the same number in about 70.

Barry Trotz is wisely avoiding the power-against-power matchups at home, despite his personal protestations that he doesn’t line-match. Ovechkin got a lot of the top line and even more of the Schmidt-McNabb pair in Game 2. In Game 3 it was more often the second line with James Neal and David Perron, but there was no getting him away from Vegas’s top pair.

Vegas’s struggles mostly feel like the carriage turning back into a pumpkin in this series, but that isn’t to say Washington hasn’t been — to use the phrase so often associated with Vegas — opportunistic. To briefly re-explain, this concept of opportunism only arises when bounces go right for teams. So for Washington to have gone 1-fo- 2 on the power play in that tight Game 2, and survive 3-of-4 kills despite the dumbassedness of some of those late penalties (including a lengthy two-man disadvantage) feels like the kind of thing Vegas would have been praised to the rafters for.

The Caps also held Vegas goalless in the first period, which is a rare feat in these playoffs, and avoided the dumb penalties at home. That they went 0-for-4 on the power play themselves didn’t matter as much because they scored early in the second period and played with a lead for nearly two-thirds of the game.

Let’s put it this way: If the worst thing that happens to you is your goalie flubbing the puck and allowing an ugly goal when you’re up two goals, but it ultimately doesn’t matter much, you’re in pretty good shape.

Whether that works out for this team to wring two more wins out of arguably the luckiest NHL team of the cap era remains to be seen. But hey, it’s working so far, and they have the personnel to make losing three more instead much harder to pull off.

What We Learned: Playoff edition

Vegas Golden Knights: I love the idea that this Game 3 loss in particular is somehow confusing to people. Vegas doesn’t have the caliber of skaters at positions 1-18 in the lineup to keep their heads above water forever. It doesn’t help, obviously, that Fleury’s save percentage is down 60 points or so from the first 15 games of these playoffs to the last three. That kind of drop in performance makes things that didn’t seem like problems at all now seem like MEGA-HUGE PROBLEMS. Yeah, you don’t want to have the circumstances leading up to the Smith-Pelly goal happen to Shea Theodore (whom we were all just praising in the Western Conference Final), but don’t we feel like the Fleury of a week ago stops the Kuznetsov shot that made it 2-0? I’d say so.

So if a 60-point swing in save percentage takes you from outscoring opponents 52-37 in 15 games to getting outscored 19-13 in three games, well, that’s hockey! More specifically, that’s PDO.

Washington Capitals: Here’s a funny stat: When Tom Wilson is on the ice in this series at 5-on-5 without Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington has been out-attempted 7-2 and doesn’t have a scoring chance. Pretty good!

Play of the Weekend

The placement on this Kuznetsov shot? It’s perfect.

Gold Star Award

I love Alex Ovechkin Reacting To Things more than just about any other thing in this series.

Minus of the Weekend

That Shaggy/Sting performance and Pat Sajak intro perfectly highlights just how pathetic NHL entertainment is if Vegas isn’t involved. Yikes.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week

User “Index” is making some easy decisions.

Edmonton Oilers trade:
Leon Draisaitl
10th Overall pick
2018 2nd round

Carolina Hurricanes trade:
2nd Overall pick
Noah Hanifin
2019 3rd round

Signoff

A… aurora borealis? At this time of year, at this time of day, in this part of the country, localized entirely within your kitchen?

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)

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