Final-ly – It’s a couple of weeks shy of two decades since the Washington Capitals played hockey in the District in June, and it’s only happened once before in the team’s 44-year history in the NHL. But it’s happening on Saturday night in D.C. The Caps will be entertaining the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Things were extremely different in these parts back in 1998; this feels like a different franchise and a different city, and in a lot of ways, it is a different franchise and a different city.
Capital One Arena was known as MCI Center in 1998, and when that 1997-98 season began, the building was still under construction. The Caps moved from their previous home in suburban Landover, Md. to their new downtown digs in December of 1997, and six months later, they were hosting the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup final.
Attendance wasn’t tremendous in the early days of the team’s downtown residence, and Ted Leonsis was still a year away from purchasing the Caps. The previous regime had no faith that Caps fans would step forth and sell out the building for the final, so they did something that would seem unthinkable nowadays, selling thousands of tickets directly to a travel agency based in Detroit, which in turn filled the Washington barn with busloads and busloads of folks wearing red winged-wheel sweaters. In those days, the Caps were clad in black and bronze.
The area immediately surrounding the arena had not been developed, either. There were many vacant buildings, and this reporter can recall walking out of the building and seeing rats scurrying across desolate F St. and 6
thSt. in those days. The Penn Quarter/Chinatown area was still several years away from becoming the destination area and the nightlife and dining goldmine that it is now.
Fast-forward 20 years, and hockey’s footprint in the District has grown exponentially. Youth hockey participation has grown by leaps and bounds, as has the Caps’ season-ticket holder base and the fervor with which those folks root for and follow their team.
Few of us who were in the building for those two home games in the ’98 Cup final would have foreseen the rapid growth and expansion of Caps fandom and the rapid growth and expansion of the surrounding area, but here we are. Tonight, the Caps will try to make history. They’ve hosted Cup Final games in June here before, but they have yet to win one.
Saturday night’s Cap One atmosphere – both inside and outside – promises to be electric from the start, but it will be a few stages beyond electric if the home team is able to come away with its first ever home ice victory in the Cup Final.
Enjoy it, savor it, soak it in, and be proud. You’re all part of an impressive transformation and Red-volution that’s been 20 years in the making.
Good To Go? – Caps center Evgeny Kuznetsov left Wednesday’s Game 2 with an upper body injury sustained while absorbing a first-period hit from Vegas defender Brayden McNabb. Kuznetsov, the league’s leading scorer in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, skated with his teammates in Friday’s optional practice, and he was also a full participant in Saturday’s morning skate.
Caps coach Barry Trotz cautioned that Kuznetsov’s potential presence in the Washington lineup for Game 3 is still a game time decision, but all of the key indicators are pointing toward him being in his usual spot between Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson when the puck drops at Cap One.
“Kuzy is a surprisingly tough kid,” said Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen after Friday’s practice. “He’s kind of a slender guy – wiry, strong. But guys play through stuff all the time, throughout the year and then especially this time of year. So we’ll see if he’s available for Game 3 or whenever he comes back, but good news that he was out there today giving it a try.”
Kuznetsov’s injury thwarted his opportunity to extend his 11-game scoring streak, the longest in the Stanley Cup playoffs in eight years, but his 25 points (11 goals, 14 assists) are tops among all skaters in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“Kuzy is one of our most important players,” says Caps center Lars Eller, who had three points in Kuznetsov’s absence on Wednesday. “He is an amazing talent that he can make the difference in any game on any given night. So we hope to have him back for [Game 3], but we’ll see. If not, we’ve shown that we can overcome those kind of losses.”
New Feeling – Generally speaking, the first game or two of a best-of-seven playoff series can involve some feeling out on both sides as teams size each other up and look for the chinks in the opposition’s armor that can be exploited.
With Washington and Vegas, there was very little in the way of prior history. The two sides are two games into this Cup Final series, and those two games equal the prior history he two teams had coming into the 2018 playoffs. It has probably taken both sides a bit longer than usual to get through that feeling out process.
“I think each of our prior three opponents,” says Niskanen, “we had some prior knowledge heading into the series, once we got a feel for it we were off to the races, I think. This team is a little bit different, for obvious reasons – a mix of everybody and a little bit of an unknown. But we’re getting a better feel for how they play and areas of the ice we can exploit, take advantage of, and a few moments in the game where we have to be aware and really diligent defensively. We’ll adjust and hopefully get better and better as the series goes on.”
The two teams have wasted little time in ratcheting up their dislike for one another, and both sides have shown a willingness to elevate their physicality, which is no surprise given what’s at stake here.
“I think Vegas has a physical element to their game,” says Trotz, “probably more so than even Tampa. I think both teams have that element in their games, they have some guys that that’s their foundations.
“When there is so much on the line, you’re going to expect some physical play. They’re both very, very determined to get to the prize at the end, so they’re doing whatever it takes to get it. I’m not surprised at all, but not playing Vegas a lot, I do know that they have that element to their game, for sure.”
Two games into this series against Vegas, Washington has found that the Golden Knights have some elements in common with previous Caps opponents this spring, which has helped somewhat in getting accustomed to what the Vegas squad is all about.
“Just like a lot of teams – like Tampa and Pittsburgh – that we’ve been playing,” says Caps winger Devante Smith-Pelly, “if you’re going to give up the puck in the neutral zone and not get it deep, they’re going to transition the other way. So it’s not too different from the teams that we’ve already been playing.”
“Maybe a little bit of Tampa,” says Caps winger Brett Connolly, asked for a comparable for the Vegas outfit. “I think their transition game is similar. I think they get the puck up right away, they’re not going D-to-D very often, they’re just firing it up to their forwards and getting it into their forwards’ hands to make plays. And when they don’t have the puck, they’re working hard to get it back. They’ve trying hard to make it uncomfortable as possible on our guys, whoever has the puck and our top guys as well.”
The Caps have had three prior opponents in the postseason this spring, and they all got a mention in terms of their similarities with Vegas.
“I think Columbus more than anyone,” says Caps center Jay Beagle. “I think Columbus would be the same style, similar style, more so than Pittsburgh or Tampa. The heavy forecheck, the way they track, their backcheck. They really like to play that below the trapezoid, below the goal line style of hockey and that triangle offense that they have, and it showed. They got a couple of goals off that.”
In The Nets – Braden Holtby’s desperate and dazzling save with 1:59 left in Wednesday’s Game 2 preserved Washington’s 3-2 lead, enabling the Caps to get out of Vegas with split of the first two games of the series. The Caps lost the opener 6-4, but Holtby continues to respond in the wake of setbacks; he is now 5-2 in starts immediately following losses in the 2018 playoffs.
Overall, Holtby is 13-7 with a 2.19 GAA and a .921 save pct. in the 2018 playoffs. At home, he is 4-4 with a 2.37 GAA and a .915 save pct.
Washington has reached Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury for seven goals in the first two games of the series. Fleury had been virtually impenetrable through the first three rounds of the postseason, although the Sharks did get to him for seven goals in Games 2-3 (both of which went into overtime) and again in Games 4-5 of the Knights’ second-round series with San Jose.
Fleury shutout the Sharks in Game 6, ending San Jose’s season and moving Vegas into the Western Conference final against Winnipeg. The Caps know all too well that Fleury is capable of spinning a shutout on any given night; he ended Washington’s season with a 2-0 whitewash of the Caps here in Game 7 of the second round of the playoffs last spring when he was still employed by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Lifetime against the Capitals in Stanley Cup playoff play, Fleury is now 9-7. After losing each of his first two playoff starts in the District, Fleury has won five of his last six postseason starts in D.C.
All Lined Up – Here is how we expect the Caps and the Golden Knights to look when they take the ice for Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final series on Wednesday night at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas:
8-Ovechkin, 92-Kuznetsov, 43-Wilson
13-Vrana, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
65-Burakovsky, 20-Eller, 10-Connolly
18-Stephenson, 83-Beagle, 25-Smith-Pelly
81-Marchessault, 71-Karlsson, 19-Smith
57-Perron, 56-Haula, 18-Neal
40-Carpenter, 21-Eakin, 89-Tuch,
92-Nosek, 41-Bellemare, 75-Reaves
84-Grabovski (post-concussion syndrome)