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POSTGAME NOTEBOOK: Caps 3, Knights 1

June 3, 2018
Bring It On Home – For the first time in nearly two weeks, the Washington Capitals played a home game on Saturday night at Capital One Arena. For the first time in the franchise’s 44-year history in the NHL, the Caps won a Stanley Cup Final game on home ice, beating the Vegas Golden Knights 3-1 to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. 

Longtime and more recent vintage fans alike came out in droves for the first Stanley Cup Final game in the District in nearly two full decades. They packed the arena and the streets surrounding the barn, creating a festival-like atmosphere. And their heroes did not disappoint. 

Washington started slowly in each of the first two games of the series in Vegas, but that was not the case on Saturday. The Caps set the tone early, as their top forward trio of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson were buzzing and creating chances right from their first shifts of the game. 

Ovechkin had eight shot attempts in the first 20 minutes, getting three of them on net, and it was clear that he was not going to be denied on the scoresheet. The first period was scoreless, but the Caps’ captain staked his team to a 1-0 lead early in the second with a pure effort goal on the part of all five red sweaters on the ice. Washington poured six shot attempts at Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury in a span of 11 seconds, and the sixth of those was an Ovechkin backhander that rose over Fleury’s back 70 seconds into the seconds stanza.

Kuznetsov doubled that lead to 2-0 in the middle of the period, and Washington took that lead into the third. A Braden Holtby turnover turned into an instant Tomas Nosek goal, giving the Knights some life and cutting the Washington lead to 2-1 with 16 and a half minutes remaining.

The Caps closed ranks and kept the Golden Knights bottled up, and Washington’s fourth line manufactured a brilliant forechecking goal to restore the two-goal cushion – Jay Beagle feeding Devante Smith-Pelly to make it a 3-1 game with just over six minutes remaining. 

By night’s end, the Knights had more shots blocked (26) by Caps skaters than they had put on Washington netminder Braden Holtby (22). Washington also outhit the Knights 38-31, and the Caps won 63 percent of the game’s face-offs. 

“It’s the commitment to playing without the puck,” says Caps center Lars Eller of the team’s defensive concept. “Everybody – all five guys – knowing exactly what to do out there when we don’t have possession, playing quick, turning the play around, playing to our strengths. We weren’t perfect at that today, but we were good enough to win.”

Fourteen – Braden Holtby earned his 14 thwin of the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs, extending his own single-season franchise playoff record. He has permitted two or fewer goals in 11 of his 20 postseason starts this spring.

Ovechkin netted his 14 thgoal of the 2018 postseason, tying him with John Druce (1990) for the most in a single playoff year in Caps franchise history. Ovechkin has had a pair of two-goal games in the 2018 playoffs, both of them in the first round against Columbus. He has gone as many as three straight games without scoring only once thus far in the postseason, in Games 2-4 against Pittsburgh in the second round. 

Big Goals – Signed last summer after the New Jersey Devils opted to buy out the final season of his contract, Smith-Pelly has been a positive asset in Washington since his arrival. He plays a consistently physical game, does a good job of getting in on the forecheck, is among the most fearless shot blockers in the league, and is a skilled penalty killer, too.  

Playing mostly in the team’s bottom six during the regular season, Smith-Pelly chipped in with seven goals and 16 points in 75 games during the regular season. Smith-Pelly arrived in the District with a reputation of a guy who steps his game up in the playoffs, and he has lived up to that billing with five goals and six points in 21 postseason contests.

Smith-Pelly has 40 career goals in 341 regular season games, but after netting his fifth goal of the playoffs in Saturday’s win over Vegas, he now has 11 goals in 46 career playoff games. With five goals for Washington in the playoffs, he is tied for fifth on the team with Nicklas Backstrom and Brett Connolly.

“That’s what some people are saying, I guess,” says Smith-Pelly, when asked about his big game, big goal reputation. “I don’t know, I love playing in the playoffs – it’s fun. It just so happens maybe I’m scoring goals at the right time, I don’t know. I love playing in the playoffs, that’s really the only way I can explain it.” 

Smith-Pelly’s goal on Saturday was a critical insurance tally, as was his previous goal, a third-period goal in Game 6 against Tampa that turned a taut, 1-0 affair into a 2-0 Washington lead with roughly 10 minutes remaining. Earlier in the playoffs, Smith-Pelly supplied the game-winning goal in the first-round series clinching victory against the Blue Jackets in Columbus. 

The Caps are 4-1 when Smith-Pelly scores in he 2018 playoffs.

Leave It To Beagle – Beagle made the play that led to Smith-Pelly’s goal on Saturday, pressuring Knights defenseman Shea Theodore and stripping him of the puck, then feathering a perfect pass to the front for Smith-Pelly. 

Beagle assisted on two of Washington’s goals in Saturday’s win, his second two-assist game of the 2018 playoffs. The third longest tenured Capitals player behind only Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, Beagle has had an excellent playoff run for himself with two goals and six assists. His total of eight points is a personal best for one playoff year, as are his six assists and plus-7 rating. 

Additionally, Beagle’s 61.4% face-off success rate ranks second in the playoffs among players who have taken at least 100 draws. 

By The Numbers – Matt Niskanen led the Caps with 27:16 in ice time … John Carlson led the Caps with six shots on net, 13 shot attempts and four blocked shots … Tom Wilson led Washington with five hits … T.J. Oshie won all five of his face-offs (100%), Kuznetsov won five of seven face-offs (71%) and Backstrom won 11 of 18 (61%) … Of the total of 36 skaters on both sides in Saturday’s game, only five were not credited with at least one hit in the contest.

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