Caps fans have been waiting for more than four decades for a home ice victory in a Stanley Cup Final series, but they’re waiting no more. Washington turned in a gritty and stifling effort in Saturday’s Game 3 of the final against the Vegas Golden Knights at Capital One Arena, sending a pumped up crowd home happy after a meaningful 3-1 victory.
Saturday’s win is meaningful because the Caps have won consecutive home games for the first time in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs, and they’ve handed Vegas its first set of consecutive setbacks. The Caps now own a 2-1 lead in the series, marking just the second time the Golden Knights have been down in a playoff series this spring; they trailed Winnipeg 1-0 in the Western Conference Final before winning four straight to ground the Jets.
Saturday’s win evens Washington’s home ice record at 5-5 in the postseason.
“It was great,” says Caps center Lars Eller. “We love playing here at home, and we certainly felt the vibe at the start of the game, and throughout the game. It was a great experience.”
Alex Ovechkin set the tone for his team early with a dominant performance in a scoreless first frame, and then he staked his team to a lead it would not relinquish early in the second. Evgeny Kuznetsov, who missed the final two periods of Wednesday’s Game 2 with an upper body injury returned and didn’t miss a beat; he supplied the game-winning goal and added a helper.
“I thought it was a more competitive game tonight,” says Vegas coach Gerard Gallant. “But they came out in the first period and they set the tone real good, and again we were chasing them from behind again tonight.”
Saturday’s victory was a team-wide effort and a team-wide defensive display as the Caps limited the Golden Knights to a mere two shots on net at five-on-five in the first frame, and just 17 for the night. Vegas’ lone goal was a gift, a Braden Holtby turnover that wound up in the Washington net early in the third, the only goal the Caps have permitted in their last two games at Capital One Arena.
Just over a minute into the game, Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury had to make a left pad stop on Ovechkin, denying the Caps’ captain from in tight on a two-on-one rush with Kuznetsov, who fed him beautifully. It turned out to be one of eight shot attempts for Ovechkin in the first, three of which went on net.
The Caps began flexing their defensive muscles early, blocking 15 of Vegas’ 23 shot attempts in the first, and clearly frustrating the Golden Knights’ top threats. Vegas’ top nine forwards combined for just 11 shots on net in the game, and Jonathan Marchessault and Alex Tuch had four each to account for eight of the 11. Vegas center William Karlsson scored 43 goals during the regular season to finish third in the league, but he was held without a single shot attempt in over 20 minutes of ice time in Game 3.
“It’s tight out there,” says Vegas winger James Neal. “They check hard. For us, we’ve just got to make it easier on each other, put pucks in good spots and get them back.
“We’ll dig deep, figure out what we’re doing wrong, and get better for next game.”
Although his dominant first period performance failed to bear offensive fruit, Ovechkin was not going to be denied. He scored 70 seconds into the second to give Washington a 1-0 lead, elevating a backhand shot over Fleury to finish off a lengthy and frenetic goalmouth scramble sequence. Ovechkin’s goal came on Washington’s sixth shot attempt – and fourth shot on net – in a span of just 11 seconds. He put back the rebound of a John Carlson shot, and the Caps were off and running.
“I thought it was the right thing that in a playoff game,” begins Caps coach Barry Trotz, “in our first victory in the finals at home that Alex would score the first goal. I thought that was a little bit of poetic justice, if you will, for all of the tough times.
“I loved the goal. We had I don’t know how many chances. We kept it alive for five or six chances maybe to keep that thing alive, and finally it ended up in the back of the net.”
Almost a dozen minutes later, the Caps manufactured a second goal off some diligent defensive work in their own end. With members of three different forward lines on the ice a minute or so after a Washington power play ended, T.J. Oshie sprawled out to knock a puck off a stick and safely out of the Caps’ zone. Jay Beagle collected it and handed it to Kuznetsov in neutral ice. Kuznetsov carried into Vegas territory on an odd-man rush, and fired a shot through Fleury for a 2-0 Washington lead at 12:50 of the second.
Fleury probably played his best game of the series to date, making several strong stops to keep his team within striking distance, and his work looked as though it might pay off when Tomas Nosek converted Holtby’s turnover into an empty net, cutting the Caps’ lead to 2-1 with 16:31 remaining in the third.
Vegas’ fourth line has been arguably its best offensive unit three games into this series, but Washington’s fourth line manufactured a critical forecheck goal to restore the two-goal lead with 6:07 left.
Beagle went into the right wing corner of the Vegas end and put some forechecking heat on Knights defender Shea Theodore, shaking the puck loose and gaining possession. Beagle then feathered perfect pass to space in front for an onrushing Devante Smith-Pelly. Smith-Pelly has shown a knack for big goals in these playoffs, and he delivered another, roofing a shot behind Fleury to make it a 3-1 game.
Washington was efficient in running out the clock the rest of the way, putting Vegas down in the series with Game 4 looming on Monday. The Caps have not been able to manage a 3-1 lead in any series in the 2018 playoffs; they’ve been 2-2 four games into each of their first three series, but they’ll have the opportunity to move to within a game of the promised land on Monday.
“Just get ready for the next one, that’s all you can do,” says Gallant. “We’ve said it all year, you forget about tonight’s game and get ready for the next one. They were a better team tonight, they deserved to win, and we’ll move on.”
The Caps and their fans will savor this one for a night, but their focus is already on Monday’s game.
“It was great,” says Caps center Nicklas Backstrom, “a great atmosphere. Obviously these fans have been waiting a long time, and without these fans we’re nothing. It was nice that we could give them a win in the first one here, and hopefully we can do the same on Monday.”