WASHINGTON – Three games deep into the Stanley Cup final is as good a time as any for some trends to begin developing. And in this particular final the overriding one is that it is a series between two teams that are going in diametrically opposite directions. One team is getting better and the other is getting worse. We’ll let you guess which is which.
This trend is not irreversible, but know this: if the Washington Capitals stars keep coming out to play like they have, they will be the ones with their name etched first on the new ring that will occupy the Stanley Cup. With a 3-1 victory in Game 3 to go up 2-1 in the series, the Capitals don’t exactly have a chokehold on the Vegas Golden Knights, but it’s certainly trending that way. In fact, when you think about it, we’re really one crosscheck in front of the net away from the Capitals possibly being on the verge of a four-game sweep here.
The Capitals are doing everything right now that they’ve never done in the playoffs before. And the Golden Knights are doing almost nothing of what made them the most successful expansion team in the history of professional sports and propelled them to the final. For the two days between Games 2 and 3, the Golden Knights talked about how they were uncharacteristically turning pucks over and how they had to stop, then went out in Game 3 and seemed to give it back to the Capitals almost every time they had it.
Of course, the way the Capitals are playing has something to do with that and they are doing a very good job of making the Golden Knights look ordinary.
“I think we’re getting stronger as the series has gone on,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz. “I feel that we’re finding our game against an extremely good opponent. They’re going to make adjustments and they’re going to have a game plan and we’re going to have to adjust again. I think we’re finding our game like we did in previous series.”
There are a number of reasons for that. The first is that after giving up four goals from the dangerous area in front of the net in Game 1, the Capitals have completely choked off the Golden Knights in the offensive zone. It seems that if Jonathan Marchessault doesn’t dance around and do some magic, Vegas is one-and-done. The second is that both Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov have taken their games to otherworldly levels. Judging by the wrist shot he unleashed on his goal to put the Capitals up 2-0 and the fact that he did his customary bird flap afterward, there wasn’t a darn thing wrong with Kuznetzov’s left wrist. Trotz said he was pretty confident on the flight back from Game 2 that Kuznetsov would be available for Game 3 and hinted his injury wasn’t serious, which kind of makes you wonder why he had to sit out almost all of Game 2.
“Michael Jordan, when he played his best game, he was sore, right?” said Kuznetsov, referring to games such as the famous ‘Flu Game’ in which Jordan scored 38 points against the Utah Jazz in the 1997 NBA Finals despite suffering through dehydration and exhaustion and his 63-point game on a sore foot against the Boston Celtics in the 1986 playoffs, six years before Kuznetsov was born. “When you’re hurt, you play a little better always. You have extra energy.”
If you throw out Game 1 of the series when “everyone was out of their minds,” according to Trotz, the Capitals have played almost four perfect games in a row. They did not allow a goal in the last two games of the Eastern Conference final and have allowed only three in Games 2 and 3, one of which was giftwrapped by goalie Braden Holtby in Game 3. The Capitals are giving the Golden Knights almost nothing. They’re displaying a commitment in blocking shots and chasing down loose pucks. They’re hitting, they’re scoring at key times and they are suffocating their opponent. And their best players are leading the way for them. It’s a recipe that they’ve never had in the past when all they did was disappoint in the playoffs. And it’s one that if they can continue to follow, it probably doesn’t matter how well the Golden Knights play the rest of this series.
“It’s not easy when you always have to turn back and go for that puck in the corner,” Kuznetsov said of the Capitals’ punishing forecheck. “I like the way we finish (our checks) every time we have a chance and it gives us a lot of positive energy when we don’t have the turnovers and we don’t feed their game. Like I said, it’s not easy to play.”
The Capitals have been in the NHL for more than four decades and Saturday night was the first time they had ever won a Stanley Cup final game. It has been a long time coming and the Capitals seem to realize what is at stake here. And they appear intent on not letting it slip through their fingers the way they have so many times in the past.
“I’ve been here four years and we’ve had a lot of moments,” Trotz said. “Not as many good ones as we’d like. But I think everybody recognizes that if you do the right things and you keep pounding the rock…there’s a lot of pride in our dressing room and there’s a lot of pride in the D.C. area. And in the past failures, you’d feel a lot of anxiety even before you started the playoffs. I think we’ve gotten past that as a group, and we’ve gotten past that hopefully as a community.”
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