Twice previously in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs the Capitals had a chance to put their opponent into a 1-3 hole in the series, and twice they were unable to do so. But in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Vegas Golden Knights, the Caps opened up a six-pack attack on the Knights and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, rolling to a 6-2 victory and taking that elusive and commanding 3-1 series lead to move within a win of achieving their dream.
Four games into each of their previous three series this spring, the Caps were all even at 2-2, but now they’re a single win shy of the achieving the goal that has eluded them throughout their 44-year history – a Stanley Cup title.
Six different skaters found the back of the net, two defensemen and one member of each of Washington’s four forward lines.
“That’s huge,” says Caps center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who had four assists in Monday’s win. “You can see all four lines play their good hockey. We play very good hockey right now, but we have to have a short memory and stay focused.”
Game 5 is on Thursday night in Vegas, and the Stanley Cup will be in the confines of T-Mobile Arena. If they win that game, the Caps will be bringing the long coveted Cup home with them to D.C.
“It feels nice, but it’s not over yet,” says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin. “We have a couple of days to watch the game. I don’t think we played our best – they had pretty good chances, but luck was on our side. We just have to play much better over there if we want to win.”
Four and a half minutes into Game 4, Vegas was on the power play and Golden Knights’ winger James Neal missed a Golden Opportunity, clanking his shot off the post after a nice Erik Haula feed left him with a wide open net from point blank range. That was the second goalpost the Golden Knights hit in the first five minutes, and it wouldn’t be the last of the night, either.
Minutes later, the Caps scored the game’s first goal on a power play of their own as T.J. Oshie displayed one of his many incredible talents, his hand-eye-foot coordination. Fleury shrugged off an Evgeny Kuznetsov shot off a zone entry, but Oshie got to the rebound, adroitly kicked it with his skate blade to his stick blade, and tapped it into a mostly vacant net for a 1-0 Washington lead at 9:54 of the first.
Late in the first frame, the Caps scored twice more to give goaltender Braden Holtby all the offensive support he would require on this night. Less than 10 seconds after Vegas iced the puck, the Caps made the Knights pay. Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson worked a give-and-go after an offensive-zone face-off win, and Wilson scored from the slot to make it a 2-0 game at 16:26.
Two nights after he supplied a critical insurance goal late in the third, Devante Smith-Pelly beat Fleury again, scoring what would prove to be the game-winner in the final ticks of the period.
Smith-Pelly made a good play to keep the puck in the Vegas zone at the left point, and Alex Ovechkin moved it cross-ice to Matt Niskanen at the right point. Smith-Pelly went to the net, and, in a strikingly similar play to Oshie’s goal, kicked the puck from his skate blade to his stick blade and went top shelf to make it a 3-0 game with 20.5 seconds left in the period. The puck came to Smith-Pelly after Vegas winger Jonathan Marchessault blocked Niskanen’s point drive.
Washington might have been down 3-0 in the first five or six minutes of the game, and instead it strolled to the room with the first three-goal lead of the series after 20 minutes of Game 4.
“It was frustrating because of the score,” says Vegas coach Gerard Gallant of his team’s first 20 minutes. “I thought we played our best period of the final so far. We had two posts, we had some good chances and we got nothing out of it.”
Washington wasn’t at its best in the middle period, but it was still able to extend its lead. Occupying Ovechkin’s office at the left dot, John Carlson pounded a one-timer past Fleury after a boss retrieval from Oshie and a cross-ice pass from Kuznetsov.
The Golden Knights made things interesting when they scored the next two goals of the game in the third period, Neal scoring on the power play at 5:43 and Reilly Smith making a nifty move and a backhand finish to pull Vegas to within 4-2 with plenty of time – more than seven minutes – still remaining.
But Vegas’ collective frustrations came to the fore at various junctures of Monday’s game, and the aftermath of Smith’s goal was one of those junctures. Suddenly placed on a line with Haula and Smith, Ryan Reaves went out for the shift after Smith’s goal seemingly with the intention of stirring the pot. Reaves hit Wilson in neutral ice and the two jostled a bit, and both were boxed for matching roughing minors just over half a minute after Smith scored.
Four-on-four hockey has been problematic at times for the Caps in these playoffs, but not in this series. Washington blueliner Michal Kempny made a great play to set up Lars Eller for a big four-on-four goal in Game 2 in Vegas, and in Monday’s Game 4, Kempny lighted the lamp himself.
Oshie repelled a check from Vegas defenseman Colin Miller with a reverse hit (breaking the Vegas blueliner's nose, according to Gallant), leaving the puck for Nicklas Backstrom, who promptly went cross-ice to Kempny. The defenseman ripped a one-timer past Fleury to restore Washington’s three-goal lead some 73 seconds after Smith had cut it to two.
Its comeback hopes dashed, Vegas had little interest in playing hockey the rest of the way, taking a pair of minor penalties and a pair of misconducts as its collective frustrations boiled over. Brett Connolly closed out the scoring with a 5-on-3 power-play goal – the Caps’ third extra-man tally of the night – with 1:09 left.
“I think we just had a good approach,” says Carlson, “and we’re going to need more of that. I think [after] wins and losses we’ve come out with a better plan for the next game throughout the whole playoffs. It’s easy to just over-exert yourself in some areas in a big game like this, and I think we came in balanced and ready to go. It paid off for us tonight.”
The Caps will be looking for one more payoff on Thursday night in Vegas. Eight months and 105 games after their 2017-18 odyssey started in Ottawa, the Caps are now just a win away from their boyhood dreams becoming reality. But the focus is still on business.
“Nope, not at all,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz, asked if he allows himself to think about what is now just one victory away. “There is a proud team over there, and I thought they played really quite well. I thought that they maxed out in the first. They stayed to their identity; the first five or six minutes they came hard. That’s part of their DNA – they’re a quick start team. You know that and we survived it, and they had some chances and didn’t convert.”