The Washington Capitals can smell the darn thing. In their 43rd season, one of hockey’s longest-suffering franchises is one victory away from its first championship. And these Caps have earned their current standing. They’re showing poise, confidence and killer instinct we’ve never seen in the Alex Ovechkin era. They’ve knocked off heavy favorites Pittsburgh and Tampa to get here. The Caps’ power play is cooking. Goaltender Braden Holtby is consistently outplaying Marc-Andre Fleury in the final.
So the Caps and their fans deserve to feel confident – not overconfident, but confident – that this team can win one of its next three games and close out the series. The Vegas Golden Knights, meanwhile, are experiencing turmoil for the first time in their short life. They’ve lost three straight games – which equals their longest losing streak all season (and, technically, in franchise history). Do they have any reason for hope? Can the Golden Knights turn this thing around? Let’s put our glass-half-full hats on and see if we can identify any positive omens.
3-1 SERIES COMEBACK PRECEDENT
The 3-1 comeback isn’t absolutely impossible. Whereas only four teams in NHL history have rallied from a 3-0 deficit, 24 teams have come back from a 3-1 deficit to win a series. Technically, the teams who rallied from 3-0 trailed 3-1 during their series, meaning we’ve seen 28 teams win playoff series after trailing 3-1. The odds of replicating that feat aren’t impossible but remain very long – less than 10 percent in more than 200 series all-time that have reached a 3-1 margin.
Worse yet for Vegas: of those 28 inspiring comeback squads, only one was a Stanley Cup finalist. The lone team to recover from a 3-0 or 3-1 deficit in the final: the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, who stormed back from 3-0 to overtake the Detroit Red Wings. That’s a circumstantial stat and may have no impact on Vegas – but it’s a fascinating fact nonetheless. On an emotional level, is it possible teams simply have nothing left when they trail 3-0 or 3-1 in the final, so deep into the gruelling post-season? Does the team with the massive lead get an extra adrenaline boost knowing how close the Stanley Cup is to its grasp? It would be a massive oversimplification to suggest “Teams never rally in the Cup final, so Vegas can’t,” but we’re talking a century’s worth of 3-1 deficits here. It’s telling that 27 of 28 comebacks came from non-finalists. So the Golden Knights are better off ignoring history. They’ll need to win in spite of it, not because of it.
The Golden Knights have peppered Washington with a barrage of hit posts and almosts in this series, especially in Game 4. Per naturalstattrick.com, the Corsi edge was 53-28 for Vegas at 5-on-5. The Golden Knights had a 12-5 edge in high-danger chances, too. For the series at 5-on-5, the Golden Knights hold a 210-166 edge in Corsi For and a 40-35 edge in high-danger chances. In PDO, the stat that combines shooting percentage and save percentage to approximate “puck luck,” Vegas sits at 96.4 for the series and Washington’s at 103.6. For perspective, the “unluckiest” team in the NHL ranked 31st at 97.8 and the “luckiest” team ranked first at 102.3 in the regular season. So Vegas has had a worse PDO than the league’s worst, and Washington has enjoyed a better PDO than the league’s best. The puck luck really is skewed in this series so far.
So, theoretically, the Golden Knights’ puck luck should change drastically soon and, given they’ve been the better team territorially in this series, goals should start flying in when that happens. There’s a hole in that theory, though. What’s the great equalizer when it comes to puck luck? Goaltending. If Holtby keeps besting Fleury, the PDO numbers won’t change. As much as Fleury has been responsible for getting Vegas this far, the season ends soon if he doesn’t rediscover his form from Rounds 1 to 3.
We know the Golden Knights enjoy one of the league’s best lifts on their home ice, so can they take comfort in knowing the road to redemption would involve winning two games at T-Mobile Arena? Their home dominance has indeed carried over from the regular season, as the Knights are 7-2 on their own turf in the playoffs, with one of their defeats coming in double overtime. That said, the Capitals have been road monsters this post-season – historically so. They’re an amazing 9-3 away from Verizon Center. If they take Game 5 or 7 in Vegas, it’ll equal the NHL record for most road wins in a single post-season. So it would be a stretch to count home ice as a bankable advantage for the Golden Knights.
It’s thus difficult to place much hope in a Vegas comeback at this point. If you’re clinging to anything, it’s the idea these guys have done their best work when no one expects them to succeed. Welcome back to underdog status, Golden Knights…