Critical Contest – After 180 minutes of hockey, only one goal separates the Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final. Washington has outscored Vegas 10-9 and it holds a 2-1 series lead going into Monday night’s crucial Game 4 at Capital One Arena. Either team could be holding that 2-1 series lead at this point, but it’s the Caps, and they’ve probably played better over those 180 minutes than the Golden Knights have.
One way or another, Monday’s Game 4 is going to put a whole different paint job on this series. Whichever team wins Game 4 will have a clear path to the Cup because it will not have to win any more games in the other team’s building. We’ve heard a lot of talk about how home ice advantage has been meaningless in the 2018 playoffs, and that’s true to a degree, but Vegas is the outlier. The Golden Knights are 7-2 on home ice in the playoffs, and the Caps have already won one game at T-Mobile Arena. Putting themselves in a position where they would have to win another would qualify as pressing their luck.
“This is huge,” says Caps center Jay Beagle. “This is big. Obviously, you never look too far ahead. Game 3, we had to take it. We knew that if we played the right way in Game 3, we’d give ourselves a chance to win. We got Game 3, but this is the biggest game of the year, obviously, probably the biggest game of our lives.
“This is awesome, that’s why you play the game. You get excited for that; it’s easy to get up for a game like this. The boys are going to be going, and Cap One is going to be going nuts like it was for Game 3. We will feed off that energy and make sure that we’re just systematically going after them like we did in Game 3, sticking to our system and playing hard.”
Winning one game in Vegas was more than enough of a chore for the Caps. They don’t want to be put in a position of having to win another there. Vegas has been scuffling offensively, and the Caps are heating up some at home, winning two straight in the District and allowing one goal – and that one gift-wrapped – in the process. The Golden Knights know they’ve got to have this one, too.
It will be a battle of wills, and it should make for some compelling hockey.
“We know the importance of this game,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “Obviously you can put yourself in a real good position after tonight. But at the same time, you know you’re playing a very good opponent, an opponent that is very desperate, and an opponent that is going to have their best game. We know we have to have our best game. If we don’t, then the series gets tied up.”
Just Adjusting – Playoff series are all about adjusting, especially early in series when teams are still sizing up the opposition. Now that we’re in the middle of the series, it’s about adjusting and executing, and the pressure is on the trailing team to do so.
Vegas netted a six-pack of goals in the series opener on home ice, but it has managed just three goals in two games since, with two of the three coming at five-on-five. In an effort to stimulate some offense, Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant is making some alterations to his lineup for Game 4.
Gallant has received two goals from his top line (both in Game 1) and four goals from his fourth line. Vegas defensemen have contributed a pair of power-play goals, but the Golden Knights’ middle six has been limited to a single tally, James Neal’s goal in Game 2.
With all of that in mind, Gallant is apparently sliding Alex Tuch from the third to the second line, and he is inserting Tomas Tatar into the Vegas lineup on the team’s third line. Gallant played coy as to who would be coming out of the Golden Knights’ lineup – some speculated it might be David Perron – to accommodate Tatar, but Gallant did note that there could be one more Vegas lineup change as well. That second change could involve forward Oscar Lindberg.
“I didn’t say I took Perron out, but Tatar is going in,” says Gallant. “He is a goal scorer, we wanted to change our lineup a little bit obviously losing two games in a row, so it will give us a little bit more offense.”
Tatar has four straight 20-goal seasons to his credit; he netted 16 with Detroit and four with Vegas in 2017-18 to record the fourth of those double-sawbuck campaigns. Obtained from the Red Wings at the trade deadline, Tatar had four goals and six points in 20 games with the Golden Knights, but he has been deployed sparingly in the postseason. He has suited up for only six of the Knights’ 18 playoff games to date, notching a goal as his lone point.
Over the course of a seven-season NHL career spanning 427 games, Tatar has 119 goals and 228 points. His purpose for Game 4 is clear – score some goals. Tatar features good wheels and plenty of skill. Originally a second-round pick (60
thoverall) of the Wings in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, Vegas forked over a first-rounder in 2018, a second-rounder in 2019 and a third-rounder in 2021 to pry Tatar from the Wings on Feb. 26.
At a salary cap dent of $5.3 million per season for the next three beyond ’17-18, Tatar is the highest paid forward on the Vegas roster. That he has been so frequently scratched – and that he appears likely to draw in on the third line – this spring is testimony to the Golden Knight’s meritocratic use of their personnel.
“He brings offense, he can shoot a puck, he is good for our power play,” says Gallant. “He is going to play his game, and play it the way we play our systems, and he will work hard. He is excited to play, that’s for sure.”
There’s one more thing. Tatar routinely tunes up the Caps, to the tune of six goals and nine points in 14 career contests. He scored four goals in two games against Washington this season, and supplied the overtime game-winner in a Feb. 11 game at Capital One Arena, a 5-4 Wings triumph over the Caps.
Tatar’s insertion into the lineup is clearly designed to address perhaps Vegas’ most acute need, scoring.
“Big time, definitely for sure,” agreed Gallant on Sunday, asked about secondary scoring. “The [William] Karlsson line is the line that makes our team run, but we need more people stepping up and trying to score goals, but we need more people also playing good defensive hockey and not giving the opportunities up. It’s a team game for us, and we need everybody going.”
Having won each of the last two and owning a slim lead in the series, the Caps have the luxury of sitting on previous adjustments until and unless things start heading in a southerly direction.
“In our eyes, it’s one game and they’re all really, really important to us and we’re going to attack them all the same way,” says Caps defenseman John Carlson. “We’ve made some good adjustments after the first game – in Games 2 and 3 – that we’re not going to sit back and rest on that. More adjustments need to be made, better plays need to be made and there are certain situations that we really didn’t do that well in. You go out there hoping for a better product.”
Case Of The Mondays – Come Stanley Cup playoff time, we routinely see players play through all kinds of ailments known and (mostly) unknown, ranging from broken ankles and punctured lungs in the most storied of examples, to the more frequent but far less debilitating bruises, cuts and missing teeth.
During Saturday night’s pregame warmup, Caps defenseman Michal Kempny lost an edge and took a tumble, resulting in a few stitches. But he was ready for puck drop and logged more than 17 minutes.
At the Caps’ Monday morning skate, winger Devante Smith-Pelly was the victim of another such instance. He took a biscuit to the grill, vernacularly speaking; the puck coming off the stick of teammate T.J. Oshie on a deflection of a shot initially generated from Andre Burakovsky.
Smith-Pelly left the ice briefly for repairs, but soon returned to the adulation of his teammates and the assembled crowd at Kettler Once practice was over, he held court for the media in front of his stall whilst still drizzling blood from his chin.
“It’s a little wake-up call,” shrugs Smith-Pelly of his Monday morning ordeal. “It’s fine. I’ve got all my teeth – except for that one [lost long ago] – but I’ll be fine.
“Burky was trying to take a slap shot. It kind of rolled.”
Then came the shade, sublimely delivered with the deft touch of a Nicklas Backstrom pass.
“Uh, I don’t know how close I was to the net,” says Smith-Pelly, glancing (and smiling) in Burakovsky’s direction. “I don’t think I was that close. But whatever, it’s fine.”
“It’s just glued right now,” he says. “I don’t know if I’m going to have to get stitches later or not, but it’s still dripping blood, so we’ll see. It’s fine.”
It’s fine. The same may not be said for Burakovsky’s wallet, though.
“At least a dinner,” suggests Smith-Pelly, asked about potential compensatory damages. “Minimum a dinner, at least.”
A Game 4 goal might settle that tab, too.
It Was 20 Years Ago Today – On June 4, 1998, Joé Juneau scored what was – to that juncture, anyway – the most important goal in franchise history. On a Thursday night in Buffalo, Juneau jammed home a rebound at 6:24 of overtime to launch the Caps into the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history.
Washington won game 6 of the 1998 Eastern Conference Final by a 3-2 count, the only time it led that night. Until this spring, the dozen wins earned by the 1997-98 edition of the Caps in the spring of ‘98 stood as the franchise’s high water mark.
After a scoreless first, the two teams traded tallies in the second, Michael Peca scoring for the Sabres and Esa Tikkanen answering back for the Caps a mere 22 seconds later. Paul Kruse staked Buffalo to a 2-1 lead early in the third, but Peter Bondra’s power-play goal with 5:59 left tied the game and ultimately forced overtime.
Adam Oates and Brian Bellows earned the assists on Juneau’s historic goal in overtime, and they made for a fitting trio; along with Andrei Nikolishin, those three were among the Caps’ top playoff scorers that spring.
Olie Kolzig outdueled future Hockey Hall of Famer Dominik Hasek in Game 6, making 39 saves on the night.
That Game 6 against the Sabres was back in the days of the single referee, and official Don Koharski gave his whistle a workout; each team had six power plays.
In The Nets – Winner of four of his last five starts, Braden Holtby will be in net for Washington for Game 4. After being dented for five goals against in Game 1 following a five-day layoff, Holtby has responded with consecutive excellent efforts, limiting the Golden Knights to three goals on 61 shots.
The only thing standing between Holtby and a shutout in Saturday’s Game 3 was his own turnover behind the Washington net, a miscue that resulted directly and almost immediately in a Tomas Nosek goal early in the third period.
As Carlson astutely pointed out after the game that night, Holtby’s puck work is actually fueling a lot of Washington’s breakout success both in this and in previous series, and a rare mistake shouldn’t change anything.
“I want him to keep doing the things he is doing,” says Carlson of Holtby, “because there have been certain times against a high pressure team like this that when you’re trying to break the puck out, as a defenseman it’s a lot easier with him distributing the puck. He bypasses guys, he makes really good first passes and it’s a lot easier when all three of us are working together.
“So yeah, it’s one bad play, a lucky play that went in. No one even bats an eye because of what he means to us and what he’s done for us.”
Washington has reached Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury for three or more goals in three straight games now, despite mustering 28 or fewer shots on net in each of those games.
Way back in the second round, San Jose scored three or more goals in four straight games on Fleury, but Vegas managed to split those games – Games 2-5 – with the Sharks, and Fleury bookended that stretch with shutouts in Games 1 and 6. He also faced at least 30 and as many as 47 shots in each of that quartet of games, two of which required overtime.
Fleury has played 1,141 minutes in the 2018 playoffs, the most he has logged since he backstopped Pittsburgh to a Cup championship in 2009, leading the league with 1,447 minutes in the process.
All Lined Up – Here is how we expect the Caps and the Golden Knights to look when they take the ice for Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final series on Monday night at Capital One Arena in the District:
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
89-Tuch, 56-Haula, 18-Neal
90-Tatar, 21-Eakin, 40-Carpenter
92-Nosek, 41-Bellemare, 75-Reaves
84-Grabovski (post-concussion syndrome)