Despite losing the Stanley Cup Final to the Washington Capitals in five games, the Vegas Golden Knights may have controlled the play more often, according to the underlying numbers.
Washington’s power play, the inability of Golden Knights top-six forwards like Jonathan Marchessault to score, a reversal in fortunes for Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and Washington’s shot blocking were the deciding factors.
Here’s a closer look:
The Vegas advantage
To the eye, it appeared the Golden Knights spent more time than the Capitals in possession of the puck and/or in the attacking zone, especially at even strength. Though there’s no exact measurement of this, counts of shot attempts and the zone where face-offs occurred suggest Vegas controlled the play roughly 55.0 percent of the time.
The Golden Knights attempted 255 shots at 5-on-5 to 209 for Washington (55.0 percent). Of the 131 face-offs in the attacking zone at 5-on-5, 72 (55.0 percent) took place in Washington’s zone, as opposed to 59 in Vegas’ zone.
The Golden Knights may have had an edge at even strength, but the Capitals’ advantage on the power play may have been the decisive factor.
Washington scored five goals in 16 opportunities in the Cup Final (31.3 percent). Vegas scored three goals on 14 opportunities (21.4 percent).
That brought the Capitals’ total to 22 goals in 75 opportunities during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the most since the Philadelphia Flyers scored 23 in 105 opportunities in 2010. Among teams with at least 50 opportunities, Washington’s 29.3 power-play percentage was the highest since the Toronto Maple Leafs scored on 29.7 percent of their chances (22-for-74) in 1993-94.
Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom led the Final with four power-play points, bringing his playoff total to an NHL-high 13, all assists. Defenseman John Carlson, center Evgeny Kuznetsov and forwards Alex Ovechkin, and T.J. Oshie each scored with the man-advantage during the Final and each finished with at least 11 power-play points in the playoffs, making the Capitals the first team in League history to have five players do so.
The Golden Knights were unable to take advantage of scoring opportunities despite having more 5-on-5 attempts in the series.
Marchessault is a prime example. His 22 shots on goal were the most of any player in the Final, but he didn’t score. Based on his career 11.8 shooting percentage in the regular season and playoffs, he would normally be expected to score an average of 2.6 goals on 22 shots, with a 6.3 percent chance of scoring none.
Forward Alex Tuch and defenseman Deryk Engelland were similarly frustrated; each took 15 shots without scoring. Based on their previous career shooting percentages in the regular season and playoffs of 10.1 and 4.5 percent, respectively, they would have been expected to combine for an average of 2.2 goals, with a 10.1 percent of both players coming up empty.
Washington outscored Vegas 20-14 in the Final. With average scoring luck for Marchessault, Tuch, and Engelland, that six-goal differential would have been reduced to 1.2 goals.
Fleury’s reversal of fortune
Vegas opponents were frustrated by their inability to score during the first three rounds of the playoffs. In the Final, the Golden Knights were the ones shaking their heads.
Fleury entered the Cup Final with a .947 save percentage, the best of any goaltender to play more than 10 games in a single postseason since the statistic was first tracked by the NHL in 1955-56. It was his best 15-game performance (playoffs and regular season) since 2007-08.
But Fleury’s save percentage against Washington plummeted to .853. Looking at every five-game stretch in his career (playoffs and regular season), Fleury has been at or below that mark only 2.0 percent of the time.
The last time his save percentage was .853 (or below) in a five-game stretch was with the Pittsburgh Penguins against the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the 2012 playoffs, a series the Penguins lost in six games.
Commitment to defense
The Capitals helped goaltender Braden Holtby by blocking more shots than Vegas, 99-53. That disparity was unexpected, given how close their numbers were in the regular season (1,220-1,179 in Washington’s favor), and how the Golden Knights were blocking more shots in the playoffs, 19.1 per game to 16.8 by the Capitals through the first three rounds.
Washington and Vegas were largely even in terms of hits (178-173), giveaways (57-50) and face-off wins (157-159), but the Capitals had a notable advantage in preventing shots from reaching the net.
Almost half of Washington’s blocked shots came from four defensemen: Michal Kempny (13), Matt Niskanen (13), Brooks Orpik (12) and Carlson (11). The only other player in the series to block more than six shots was Golden Knights defenseman Brayden McNabb, who had nine.