WASHINGTON (TNS) — The Washington Capitals are one victory from putting to rest the anguish and angst spawned by more than four decades of playoff failures.
Gaining strength with each shift, the Capitals overpowered the Vegas Golden Knights, 6-2, on Monday at Capital One Center to put themselves in position to win the Stanley Cup on Thursday at Las Vegas. First-period goals by T.J. Oshie, Tom Wilson and Devante Smith-Pelly and three assists by center Evgeny Kuznetsov fueled the charged-up Capitals and moved them ever-so-close to the first Cup championship in franchise history with a series lead of 3-1.
The Capitals were an epically bad expansion team when they entered the NHL for the 1974-75 season and have had many star players over the years but reached the Final only once before — in 1998 — and were swept in that appearance. Facing low expectations this season after they overhauled their roster and supposedly dropped a tier in quality, the Capitals banded together under coach Barry Trotz and found strength in each other and in his defensive system.
The Capitals' depth, discipline and growing belief in themselves defused the potent magic performed by the Golden Knights, who had accomplished many expansion-team firsts and won the first game of the Final but were outscored 12-5 in losing the next three games. They were blanked Monday until 5:43 of the third period, when James Neal scored soon after a Vegas power play had ended. Reilly Smith scored on a backhander at 12:26 to cut Washington's lead to 4-2 but Michal Kempny restored his team's three-goal margin at 13:39 and Brett Connolly scored at 18:51 after the Golden Knights vented their frustration with ugly hits.
The most conflicted person in hockey must be George McPhee, who was the Capitals' general manager for 17 years and put much of their current team in place but was fired in 2014 and was succeeded by Brian MacLellan, his childhood friend and former teammate in college and in the NHL. McPhee later was hired by the Golden Knights and did a clever job in assembling a team that won the Western Conference championship but could not match the Capitals' depth and scoring balance.
After the Capitals rode out a forceful start by the Golden Knights on Monday that included a point-blank shot by Neal that hit the post, Oshie gave Washington the lead with a power-play goal at 9:54. Vegas defenseman Colin Miller had tripped Washington center Lars Eller and was in the penalty box when Kuznetsov took a shot from the left side that struck Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury in the shoulder and caromed across the crease. Oshie corralled the puck with his skate, kicked it up to his stick and lifted a shot over Fleury, triggering roars from a crowd that was waiting for a reason to celebrate.
Oshie has used Washington's Metro transit system to travel to Capital One Arena the past two games because of street closures and heavy traffic in the area, and before Monday's game a video clip surfaced on social media that showed him trying to exit the station only to find he didn't have enough money banked on his fare card. If he maintains his hot hand he won't have to pay for a ride anywhere in this city ever again.
Tom Wilson increased Washington's lead to 2-0 at 16:26. Playoff scoring leader Kuznetsov began the play by winning a faceoff in Vegas' defensive zone and made the goal possible with a fine pass to Wilson in the slot.
Vegas urgently needed to get out of the period without more damage but couldn't do it. With 20.5 seconds left before the intermission Smith-Pelly scored from close range, again triggering huge roars and cheers. The assists went to Alex Ovechkin and Matt Niskanen. Perspective on the clutch play from Smith-Pelly, a former Duck: he has scored six goals in 23 postseason games after scoring seven in 75 regular-season games. His goal came on the Capitals' 11th shot, which didn't help Fleury's dismal save percentage. But to be fair, Fleury was getting nearly no help from his teammates and repeatedly was left to face dangerous scoring chances.
Defenseman John Carlson padded the lead to 4-0 with a power-play goal at 15:23 of the second period, scored while Neal was serving a slashing penalty, and that was more than enough to ensure the Stanley Cup will be at T-Mobile Arena on Thursday and will be taken out of its travel case if Washington wins again. A sixth game, if necessary, would be played on Sunday at Capital One Arena.