What a blast! The Stanley Cup Final is here and southern Nevada is going puck crazy for their new hometown darlings, the Vegas Golden Knights.
Not since the days of Jerry Tarkanian and his NCAA national basketball champion UNLV Rebels has this town been so wrapped up in a local sports team, with viewing parties throughout the valley finding standing-room only crowds.
But can the Golden Knights actually take down a Washington Capitals club that also owns zero – as in absolutely none – victories in the NHL championship series? We’re not talking about titles, I mean winning any single game.
Since Game 1 occurred after publication date, the result is unavailable. So for a preview, we searched for answers from someone with intimate knowledge of both franchises, who knows what it’s like to be a Stanley Cup champion.
I found such a person in former National League goaltender Bill Ranford, who won Cups with the Edmonton Oilers (once as a starter, ironically, in 1990, the year of Tark’s UNLV crown).
Ranford later became the Caps’ backup to Olaf “Godzilla” Kolzig when D.C. made its only previous Final appearance in the franchise’s 44-year history in 1998 and Detroit swept them. He now serves as the long-time goaltending coach for “my” Los Angeles Kings, winning two more etchings on the Cup by mentoring Jonathan Quick.
So which goalie between Vegas’ star Marc-Andre Fleury and the Caps’ Braden Holtby holds the advantage? It may not be obvious to VGK fans.
“It was real important, because of his style of play, to be aware about the wear and tear on his body,” said Ranford regarding Quick, who missed most of last season. “It took two-thirds of the season off to get healthy again.”
Ranford then drew a parallel to Holtby, who was lifted (aka, benched) over much of March and April, with backup Philipp Grubauer even starting several contests early in the playoffs.
Caps coach Barry Trotz took a chance by resting Holtby, but now has him playing at near-peak form entering the Final.
It’s a lot better than coaches running their goalies into the ground then quickly faltering in the playoffs, like Toronto’s Mike Babcock, Boston’s Bruce Cassidy and Winnipeg’s Paul Maurice, among others.
“Rehab is now more important than ever,” added Ranford. “With Quick, his problems are chronic and will last the rest of his career. So, it’s important when we move our rehab center to the Toyota Center (where the team practices) since the (NBA Los Angeles) Lakers are moving out. It’s a positive that we stay on top of things without needing to go off-site.”
This is an advantage he gives to Fleury. Despite all of the work, effort and energy the “Flower” has exhausted through three rounds, the Knights’ 12-3 record through the Western Conference gave the club substantially more rest than their opponents.
The last time Vegas played was May 20, meaning more than a week off, while the Caps get four days off, yet had to travel twice (home to D.C. from Tampa, then cross-country to Nevada).
“It’s just a matter of maintenance every day and warming up properly.”
Ranford also likes Fleury’s “calm demeanor” in the net, noting how San Jose’s Martin Jones is also successful for his mental processes.
It’s something Holtby has rediscovered in posting two straight shutouts to upend the Tampa Bay Lightning – his first and only ones of the entire season.
As for scouting, Ranford thinks Vegas is much harder to analyze because of the team’s depth.
“Before every game, we go over the opposing goalie with our forwards,” he added. “But we also talk to our goalies about opposing shooters. We talk about awareness on guys who like to shoot a lot, or who shoot from anywhere. It’s not like in basketball where guys like to only shoot from a certain shot. It’s more about the tendencies of the shooters.”
For example, Capitals all-star Alex Ovechkin is well-known for “his spot” to the faceoff dot to a goalie’s right side, especially on the power play.
The Golden Knights, he believes, are more difficult to figure out.
“Vegas is a team that puts a lot of pucks toward (goal) – they shoot from anywhere,” he added. “They have high-end shooters who can score from anywhere on the ice.”
Of course, a goalie can only be as successful as the help he gets from his defensemen.
“I think it was Game 3 against the Knights when we went to double-overtime,” Ranford said. “We played 90 minutes and only took 30 official shots. That’s helping your goaltender.”
Two of Vegas’ three postseason losses came in contests when they took too many penalties and were drilled on the power play.
Should they keep away from D.C. enforcer Tom Wilson and maintain a high-tempo skating scenario, most media commentators – including all four regulars on The NHL Network – we predict Vegas will hoist the Stanley Cup.
As for “our” Golden Knights, we hope they did so in Game 1, igniting their championship run.