If there is a roadmap to the Washington Capitals winning their first Stanley Cup Championship in franchise history, they are following it exactly. Their biggest names are propelling them to victory in the perfect counter to the Las Vegas Golden Knights’ aggressive style.
Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie were major contributors in Saturday’s 3-1 home victory for Washington.
The Capitals are now ahead 2-1 in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Kuznetsov led the way with two points, a goal and an assist, while Ovechkin scored his second goal of the series and T.J. Oshie added an assist. The Capitals’ three goals all took advantage of egregious errors by the Golden Knights.
For the Las Vegas, three of their own players would be their undoing. The Golden Knights’ second line was on the ice for all three goals, with Erik Haula and David Perron making careless mistakes.
Shea Theodore also horribly mishandled a puck recovery in his own zone to hand Devante Smith-Pelly the Capitals’ third goal.
The first period for each team was the most tightly played, with the Capitals blocking 15 shots. Throughout the game, they executed a style that stymied the Golden Knights by aggressively forechecking, not allowing Las Vegas to be comfortable through the neutral zone and keeping the Golden Knights away from the front of the net.
The Capitals also continued their opportunism.
They opened the scoring 1:10 into the second period on a furious scramble in front of Marc-Andre Fleury that started with a shot off the stick of Evgeny Kuznetsov.
Las Vegas winger David Perron lazily meandered behind his own goal with his eye on the puck. When Tom Wilson fired the puck off the net back out in front, Perron should’ve been in a position to challenge Kuznetsov’s follow up shot.
Erik Haula compounded the mistake by losing Kuznetsov who had moved to the point. After Kuznetsov’s shot, Haula simply stood in front of Fleury while the scramble continued, eventually ending in Alex Ovechkin’s diving goal.
For the Capitals’ second goal, Perron and Shea Theodore’s errors compounded each other to allow a three-on-one and an eventual Kuznetsov strike.
With the Golden Knights maintaining pressure in the Capitals’ zone David Perron forced a pass to Theodore at the point, who had little time or space to move the puck. Theodore’s stick did snap on the play, but that does not excuse his attempted shot on net through three bodies, from what felt like the upper deck of Capital One arena.
Theodore’s failed pinch (without a stick) ended in a three-on-one from center ice.
The final goal, was purely Theodore’s mistake, giving the puck away to Devante Smith-Pelly who put the dagger in the Knights’ Game 3 hopes.
The Capitals’ only mistake came off the stick of Braden Holtby, who’s mishandled retrieval of a dumped puck and resulted in an easy goal for the Golden Knights’ fourth liner Tomas Nosek.
Holtby and Fleury have each had one brutal error that ended in a goal, but the goaltenders have largely played well. Fleury flashed his glove multiple times in Game 3, including a robbery of Ovechkin from his favorite spot on the ice. Fleury did his best to stop the Capitals’ first goal, turning away multiple chances before Ovechkin finally prevailed.
Holtby has been sound as well, thanks in part to the Capitals’ strategy to counter Vegas’ signature aggression. Tight and tenacious forechecking has forced Las Vegas into indirect passes and slower defensive zone exits.
Game 4 Adjustments
Perron thinks the Golden Knights should transition quicker to counter the Capitals’ forecheck and neutral zone strategy. “We also have to try to net let them set up,” he said. “So if there is a turnover, a quick one, we can punt it back up, go back on offense.”
Washington has reduced Las Vegas to dump and chase and the Capitals’ tenacity in front of Holtby has allowed him to see the puck and strangled any second chances. Of all of the Golden Knights forwards, only William Karlsson has had success blocking Braden Holtby’s vision.
The Golden Knights need to find a way to station players back in front Holtby and ramp up their attacking speed.
Haula has had a bad series and Perron had a weak Game 3, while Cody Eakin looked like he’d been shot out of a cannon. Eakin canceled out multiple icing attempts and killed off nearly 40 seconds of Capitals’ power play time in the third period with a herculean individual effort.
James Neal showed in Game 2 that he can score on his own and battled through his linemates futility in Game 3.
With the fourth line playing so well, Gerard Gallant should increase their playing time while moving Neal onto a line with Eakin and Tuch and moving Carpenter back with Haula and Perron as the third line.
Gallant has shown a willingness to mix his line combinations as Neal played with Tuch and Haula in Game 1. Haula has given Gallant reason to move him down while Eakin’s speed and wrecking ball mentality would complement Neal’s skill and grit, and Tuch’s net-front ability, especially if they are going employ the dump and chase.
The Golden Knights lost back-to-back games for the first time since losing the last two contests of the regular season.
However, this is not their first time trailing a series. They lost Game 1 of the Western Conference finals in Winnipeg.
Look for a fast start from The Golden Knights in Game 4.