By Scott Taylor
There is little doubt that the Minnesota Wild possesses the best team in the West. Certainly there are teams in the East that will dispute the Wild’s legitimate claim to being the best team in the NHL (the Washington Capitals for example), but it’s pretty hard to argue that Minnesota is the best club of the 14 in the Central, Mountain and Pacific time zones.
After all, this is a team that is 39-13-6 (7-2-1 in its last 10) and is on a two-game winning streak heading into a game with its arch-rivals, the Chicago Blackhawks, on Tuesday night.
This should be an exciting matchup on Tuesday. The Hawks are 36-18-5 and are not only second to Minnesota in the Central Division, but tied for second in the West with San Jose, a great team with a nasty habit of folding up like the back seats of a Honda Minivan come playoff time.
The only team in the NHL with a better record than the Wild, Barry Trotz’s Capitals, are 39-12-7 (85 points), but are coming off a 2-1 loss to the Rangers. The Wild are plus-62 this season, the Caps are plus-69. Like Minnesota, the Capitals are 7-2-1 in their last 10.
So, ladies and gentlemen, your Stanley Cup finalists: Minnesota Wild vs. Washington Capitals. Think I’m crazy? Well, here’s why I’m making that call in February:
- Great goaltending: The two men from Saskatchewan, Braden Holtby of the Caps and Devan Dubnyk of the Wild have been terrific all season. In 45 games, Dubnyk leads the NHL with a save percentage of .934. Dubnyk’s league-leading goals against average in 1.97. Holtby is second at 2.01. These teams have the best goaltenders and therefore are the two best teams in the NHL. And remember, the Conn Smythe Trophy for NHL playoff MVP has been handed out since 1965 and goaltenders have won the award 16 times.
- Leaders: The Caps are led by veteran forward and captain Alex Ovechkin, who has become one of the game’s best 200-foot players. He didn’t always play that way, but he does now. The Wild are led by captain Mikko Koivu and 30-minute a game defenseman Ryan Suter. Koivu is playing the best hockey of his career right now. It seems that Suter is never off the ice. Both teams have the leadership required to go a long way in the post-season.
- Great coaching: Bruce Boudreau of the Wild is in his first year with Minnesota and it’s obvious how much better this team has been in 2016-17. It has certainly been more consistent and more successful than in years past. Washington’s Barry Trotz was NHL coach of the year last year and he’s picked up right where he left off. However, as good as they are at their jobs, neither coach has won a Stanley Cup. This will be another emotional spring for both of them.
- A great No. 1 line: The Wild currently have the line of Koivu, Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker firing on all cylinders. On Saturday night, during a 5-2 win against Nashville, that line scored four goals, had seven points and finished as a combined plus-nine. They’ve been together for three months and in 39 games have 43 goals, 110 points and are a combined plus-84. The Wild are 29-6-4 since Boudreau put the line together (credit: NHL Statistics). Meanwhile, the Caps top line is Ovechkin on the left side with Nicklas Backstrom in the middle and Warroad’s T.J. Oshie on the right side. The three top-line stars are among the Caps Top 4 scorers. Backstrom has 17 goals and 61 points, Ovechkin has 27 goals and 52 points and Oshie has 23 goals and 41 points. Oshie is plus-24, Ovechkin is plus-six and Backstrom is plus-15. They have combined for 22 power play goals and 13 game winners (credit: NHL Statistics).
- Solid special teams: The Caps power play is kicking along at a 21.8 per cent clip (fifth in the NHL) and its penalty kill is at 84.3 per cent (sixth). The Wild has a 21.9 per cent power play (fourth) and an 82.9 per cent penalty killing unit (10th). In terms of overall NHL rankings. The Caps are No. 3 in the NHL while the Wild are No. 5. Both teams are among the league’s best.
Both teams have sound second and third lines, good energy lines and responsible defensive units. They have both veteran presence and young legs. But most importantly, they are the best teams in the NHL in the combination that results from the five most important categories.
Frankly, as long as the goaltending (on either one of these teams) does not falter in the post-season, it will be Washington and Minnesota in the Stanley Cup final.