The Las Vegas Golden Knights started Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals exactly how they needed to. They buzzed the Capitals’ net and maintained pressure. Yet, when the first period ended, it was the Washington Capitals who led 3-0.
By the end of the game, Washington had skated to a 6-2 win and a 3-1 lead in the series.
Washington’s top players continued their major contributions including 12 points in Game 4. In fact, the Capitals’ top-six forwards have accumulated 25 points through the first four games of the series.
But that’s not the entire story.
They also continue to get contributions from the entire lineup. Bottom-six forwards and defensemen accounted for four goals Monday night and 9 goals in the series.
Secondary scoring is always a good sign when it comes to success in the playoffs, but this series has felt odd.
They don't ask how they ask how many?
For extended periods of time, the Golden Knights have dominated many offensive stat categories except for goals.
Las Vegas has led Washington in shots every game except Game 3, for a combined total of 125 shots to 103 for the series. Scoring chances also show a sizable advantage for Las Vegas at 87 to 77 in full strength situations 111 to 95 overall according to naturalstattrick.com.
However, it’s the Capitals who are scoring more and by a wide margin. No games in this series have gone to overtime and only one game, the Capitals’ Game 2 win, was decided by a goal.
The story that these stats continue to tell is the remarkable efficiency the Capitals have achieved in the series and how that efficiency has come.
Washington continues to withstand the relentlessness Golden Knights’ attack, waiting for just the right opportunities and making the best of them.
It’s like watching someone struggle to escape a Boa constrictor.
Las Vegas fights and struggles, writhing and attacking in an attempt to gain a one-goal lead. With every breath Las Vegas takes or mistake they make, the Capitals score and tighten around the Golden Knights, slowly choking the life out of them in this series.
The stats bear this out as well; Washington has scored on 16 percent of its shots while Las Vegas has converted only 9 percent of theirs.
This is not a case of Braden Holtby stealing the series. He’s been solid, but be honest, has it really felt like he’s stood on his head?
In fact, the series’ current state has a lot to do with Las Vegas’ missed chances on offense at very inopportune times. Monday night, Las Vegas forwards missed gaping nets on multiple occasions. Riley Smith shanked a chance in front of the net off of a feed from William Karlsson in the opening minutes of Game 4.
A minute later, James Neal, who had about as much time to slide the puck past Braden Holtby as I would have trying to slip under a closing automatic garage door, hit the far post.
If Vegas had jumped out to a goal or two-goal lead Monday, the series might be tied.
Washington, obviously, also deserves a lot of the credit for Las Vegas’ struggles on offense. The shot blocking disparity between Las Vegas and Washington is gargantuan and the Capitals have done an excellent job limiting second chances on Braden Holtby.
One could argue that Washington has been more successful on the power play, but before the Capitals went 3-for-5 on the power play in Game 4 they actually had one fewer power-play goals with one fewer opportunities the previous three games.
Defensive Breakdowns Continue
Perhaps the biggest decider in this series so far has been Las Vegas’ sloppiness in their own zone.
Las Vegas’ breakdowns in coverage and carelessness with the puck were the story in both Capitals victories, along with the Capitals’ opportunism.
Washington’s opening power-play goal resulted from Nicholas Backstrom taking advantage of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare’s overzealous pursuit of the puck to find a wide-open Evgeny Kuznetsov in front of the net. Kuznetsov’s shot rebounded right to T.J. Oshie, who was left alone in front of the net by Tomas Nosek.
The Capitals’ second goal stemmed from another breakdown in coverage after Jonathan Marchessault and Shea Theodore fell for some misdirection from Washington, leaving Tom Wilson open in front of Fleury for his fifth goal of the playoffs.
William Karlsson lost Devante Smith-Pelly on the Capitals’ third goal.
After a John Carlson power-play goal, the game was out of reach at 4-0.
These breakdowns have continued throughout the series and have been too much, even for Marc-Andre Fleury to stop. Just as Braden Holtby hasn’t stolen the series, Fleury hasn’t lost it.
With the exception of Fleury’s Game 1 gaffe, he hasn’t allowed any soft goals, but it is very difficult to make the type of saves he’s had to try to make with so many open Capitals in front of his goal.
Though I’d love to say the Golden Knights have a chance to climb out of a 3-1 hole, I find it hard to believe.
Washington has taken advantage of every Golden Knights mistake throughout the series and the way they are playing, I don’t see Las Vegas winning three consecutive games.
They will have to go back to the defensive responsibility that had them ranked second among playoff teams in goals against per game at 2.26 and eighth in the regular season at 2.74 goals against per game.
I’m not sure that Golden Knights have enough life left in them and the Boa constrictor that is the Capitals only has to tighten once more.