2017-18 NHL Season Recap – Part 1 – Washington Capitals Stanley Cup Champions and Awards
This years NHL season recap will be in three parts again. Recapping the Stanley Cup Champions and handing out awards, followed by Best of the Year and Worst of the Year.
The 2017-18 Stanley Cup Champions
Many said it couldn’t be done but the unthinkable finally happened, the Washington Capitals actually won the Stanley Cup. Ironically, this was probably one of the least talented Capitals teams of the past few years but they won because they had a few things the other teams never had. Luck and perseverance.
The biggest offseason losses for the Capitals were Justin Williams and Kevin Shattenkirk. I really thought Williams would be the player to take the Capitals to the next level but that was not to be. The biggest offseason addition was Devante Smith-Pelly. It didn’t seem like a big acquisition at the time but it proved to be a very important one. During the regular season, Alexander Ovechkin led the NHL in goals for the 7th time with 49. He also notched his 600 hundredth goal during the season. Evgeny Kuznetsov also had a great season. But Braden Holtby had his worst season ever and Nicklas Backstrom had a pretty uneventful season. The rest of the Capitals didn’t have that great of season either. The Capitals as a team spent most of the season playing leapfrog with the rest of the Metropolitan division. But the Capitals ended up where they usually do, winners of their division.
They opened up their playoff run against a Blue Jackets team who won the first two games against the Capitals in Washington DC. The games were close and they both went into overtime but this made it seem like it would have all the makings of another early round playoff exit. But this Capitals team didn’t wilt. They also didn’t look all that concerned. Branden Holtby took back the starting job in Game 3 and the they managed to win it in double overtime in Columbus. This game was critical because if they had lost that game in overtime again, it’s doubtful they could have recovered at all. They won another game in overtime in Game 5 and they crushed the Blue Jackets in Game 4 and 6. Even though I didn’t pick the Capitals to win any of their other series, it was this series that made me feel this team was different and they actually had the correct makeup to finally win it all.
In the second round, the Capitals faced their arch nemesis the Penguins again. Even though the Penguins possess more talent, this wasn’t really the same team of the past few years. They were tired and banged up. Most notably Matt Murray and Evgeni Malkin weren’t at 100%. And say what you want but the drive to win three Stanley Cups is nowhere near the drive to win one or two. In Game 1, the Penguins found themselves down by two in the third period but they managed to reel off three goals to win the game. This is the second time when you figured it would be the same old Capitals in the playoffs. Because blowing a three goal lead in the third period is classic Capitals. But just like the Blue Jackets series, they didn’t let it affect them. In Game 2, they jumped out to another 3-0 lead but this time they held on to it. They were up three games to two going into Game 6 and I really thought the Penguins would win the game at home to force a Game 7. Game 6 also really had a Game 7 like feel. Very tight and low scoring. And then it went into overtime. You figured the Penguins would pull it out here. But a great turnover was forced by the Capitals and when Ovechkin slid that pass to Evgeny Kuznetsov, you just knew it was going in.
In the Conference Finals the Capitals faced the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning were making their third appearance in the Conference Finals in the last four years. The Capitals took the first two games on the road as the Lightning were dreadful. But the Lightning bounced back and won the next three games leaving the Capitals in a familiar hole. But unlike the Lightning, the Capitals actually played well in their losses. The Lightning were now up 3-2 but they were also up 3-2 against the Penguins two years ago and failed to close. The same team that didn’t show up then or in the first two games of this series came back. They were outscored 7-0 in the next two games and were embarrassed. But when you play as well as the Capitals did in Game 6 and 7, you really start to believe as a team.
The Stanley Cup Finals set up a team trying to win it all after a decade of disappointment against a team just trying to win it all in their first season. The series wasn’t as close as it should have been. It reminded me of the Sharks vs Penguins series a couple of seasons ago. Both the Sharks and Knights dominated the Western Conference and then a completely different team showed up in the finals. It was almost as if they were just happy to be there. Not the way you want to play in a series. The Golden Knights managed to win a highly sloppy yet entertaining Game 1. They played pretty well in Game 2 but they couldn’t quite get the win. They then went on the road and play really poorly and were down 3-1. You knew the Capitals had the series in the bag and they went on the road to make sure they closed it. But they managed to find themselves down 3-2 in the third period. But they wouldn’t be denied. The Capitals took advantage of the Knights sloppy play in their own end and Brooks Orpik had a great pass to Smith Pelley to tie the game and suck all the air out of the arena. Lars Eller scored two minutes later and that was all they needed.
Smith-Pelly didn’t show up on the scorecard very often but he was a physical presence in every series. And when he did score, it was usually a very important goal like the one above in Game 5. But the playoffs were really about Ovechkin and he really delivered on and off the ice on all levels. He lead all playoff scorers in goals but he also had twelve assists. Really good ones too. Twelve may not seem like a lot but it is for Ovechkin. That’s pretty much almost what he had the last four postseasons combined. The emotions of Alex Ovechkin were also on full display throughout the entire playoffs. You could visibly see how much he really wanted and needed this Stanley Cup, especially after all the past failures. The celebration photos alone captured how much it truly meant to him.
The Capitals lost their head coach a few days later. But even if he stayed, it’s unlikely the Capitals would repeat or win another Stanley Cup anytime soon. The rest of the Eastern Conference is getting better and younger all the time. It seems more likely the Capitals will return to their early playoff exits then continually contend for a Stanley Cup. This was a season that will not be duplicated.
Breakout of the Year
William Karlsson – Vegas Golden Knights
It’s hard to ever envision a player in the NHL going from six to 43 goals in just one season but that’s exactly what Karlsson did. Karlsson had a long strange road to get to the top line of the Golden Knights. Drafted by the Anaheim Ducks in the second round, he barely played for them in the NHL. He was about average in the AHL. He was then traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets where he put up pretty paltry numbers. But the Blue Jackets are not known for utilizing talent and John Tortorella isn’t the easist coach to play for. He was picked up in the expansion draft by the Knights and started out scoreless in his first four games. But he quickly found his groove scoring in eight of the next ten games. It seems likely that Karlsson isn’t a flash in the pan and will remain as one of the top goal scorers in the NHL for years to come.
Rookie of the Year
Mathew Barzal – New York Islanders
Barzal redshirted his first two NHL seasons, playing just two games in them, but he really made an impact in his third year of NHL eligibility. In 2017 he had five assists in a game and then followed that up a few weeks later with his first hat trick. Then he added two more five assists games in 2018. Making him the the first rookie to have three five point games since 1918. He led all rookies in assists and points. With John Tavares now gone, Barzal will need to further develop quickly.
Goalie of the Year
Marc-Andre Fleury – Vegas Golden Knights
It’s hard for me to fathom how Fleury didn’t even get a nomination. Sometimes I feel like they give some of these trophies to the guy who had been nominated a bunch of times but never won. Pekke Rinne was the benefactor of that this year. While not a bad season, it wasn’t really his best either. But I feel like they already made up their mind he was going to win and they didn’t want Fleury to get a nod because then it would be a more difficult choice. Regardless, Fleury had one of his best seasons ever with a career season high in SV% and a career season low in GAA. That’s hard to fathom given that this was his first season with a new team and an expansion team at that. Fleury was rewarded with a three year deal.
Most Value Player to his Team/Best Player
Taylor Hall – New Jersey Devils
Usually when you get traded to a team you don’t normally become the franchise player immediately. But that’s exactly what happened with Hall. It’s really hard to imagine a new player having a more impactful and meaningful season on his new team than Hall did. He scored 93 points and was 41 points ahead of the next closest Devil. This doesn’t happen very often and is the biggest difference in a decade. Let’s also not forget his 26 game point streak either. But the most important change was Hall finally assumed a leadership role. Something he seemed unwilling or unable to do in Edmonton. Hall seemed very bitter about his time as an Oiler and his trade. And I can’t say I blame him. But the funniest thing is this really worked out so well for him. He got a fresh start where he could finally play to the level he knew he could. He is now the centerpiece of the Devils for years to come.