WASHINGTON – This would have been a good question to put to Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz after Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final. “Hey Barry. Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Braden Holtby and Nicklas Backstrom. If you had to vote for the Conn Smythe Trophy right now, what would be the order of those five guys?”
He wouldn’t have answered it, of course. But the point of the whole exercise is to highlight the fact that the alpha males on the Capitals are taking over the Stanley Cup final. The Vegas Golden Knights started with a clean slate and have some very good players, but if those five Capitals are playing the way they have of late, these Golden Knights have exactly zero answers for it. And Game 4, a 6-2 win by the Capitals to put them within one game of winning their first Stanley Cup final in franchise history, was a prime example.
Kuznetsov was a wizard with the puck and had four assists. Oshie fought for every inch of the ice, opened the scoring and broke Colin Miller’s nose on Washington’s fifth goal. Backstrom had three assists. Holtby was probably the game’s least appreciated storyline. And even though Ovechkin had only one assist, he led all players on both teams with four shots.
That’s one of a myriad of reasons why the Capitals find themselves in total control of this series. Here are five others:
1. Puck luck be damned: Much was made of James Neal hitting the post on a wide-open net, which would have given the Golden Knights a 1-0 lead and perhaps shifted the momentum. But the glare of the final has become too much for the Golden Knights. Neal panicked and hit the post, which actually means he missed the net entirely. That’s why they don’t count hit posts as shots on goal. Four minutes and 51 seconds after Neal hit the post, Colin Miller took a penalty and 32 seconds later, Oshie calmly corralled a bounce off the backboards in his feet and scored a goal in tight. “I heard (about puck luck) last series, people were saying that,” said Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant. “You don’t make excuses. When you work hard those pucks are going to go in the right way for you and I thought (Game 4) was a big step forward for us.”
2. It doesn’t matter how well the Knights play now. This is the Capitals’ series: Vegas actually came out very strong in Game 4 and carried the play early, but led by Holtby, the Capitals did not come even close to breaking. “We knew they were going to come,” Trotz said. “They talked about putting their game out and they did. And they didn’t get anything out of it and we came out 3-0 in the first period. They had some opportunities and they hit a post or two…but we converted on ours. And once we got past the first 10 minutes of that game, I thought we were fine. I thought they had a pretty good level of urgency in their game…but when it mattered, we were able to get it done.”
3. A great power play beats a really good penalty kill every time: The Capitals power play had just one goal on seven opportunities in the previous three games, but if you give a team that lethal six chances with the man advantage, it’s going to make you pay. Ask any coach if he’d rather have a lethal power play or a diligent penalty kill and he’ll take the former 100 days out of 100. “Our power play was good,” Trotz said. “They took penalties and we’re OK with that if they want to take penalties.”
4. Holtby is outplaying the guy at the other end. Full stop: This is not to suggest that Marc-Andre Fleury deserves to be the fall guy, but the difference between the Cup final and the other three series is Fleury is not giving his team that momentum-changing stop when it needs it and he’s not stealing games the way he was when he was putting together a Conn Smythe Trophy portfolio in previous rounds. Holtby has the save of the series and a save percentage of .912. Fleury has allowed 16 goals in four games and a save percentage of .845.
5. This is Washington’s time: Lightning coach Jon Cooper said during the Eastern Conference final that it looked as though Ovechkin was channeling 13 years of playoff failure into one post-season. Since the Capitals went down 0-2 to the Columbus Blue Jackets in Round 1, there has not been a better team on the planet. Sometimes the stars just align, both figuratively and literally and that is what’s happening to the Capitals right now.
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