WASHINGTON – The Vegas Golden Knights, at least on the surface, aren’t the least bit concerned with the fact that Evgeny Kuznetsov will almost certainly be in the Washington Capitals’ lineup for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final Saturday night. When asked by reporters whether he could help the Capitals in Game 3, Kuznetsov responded by saying, “I can help in the morning skate.” Nicely done.
In reality, the Golden Knights have enough to worry about in their own game. For the first time in the remarkable playoff run, this team is beginning to show a few warts. This represents a remarkable opportunity for the Capitals to take control of this series if they can find a way to be better on home ice. The Golden Knights, the Little Team That Could, is ripe for the picking in Game 3 and everyone knows it.
Now it would be pure folly to suggest the Golden Knights’ bubble has burst. This team has made fools of people who have said that since the beginning of the season. The Knights have to get back to playing the game the way they’ve played it until the Stanley Cup final. If they can do that, this series is still very much up for grabs. If they don’t start doing that and their goaltender doesn’t start stopping more pucks, the remarkable story will come to an end.
Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant knows his team hasn’t played to its potential in the past two games and wants to see it come back on the road, where Vegas has a 6-2 record in these playoffs. That includes turning fewer pucks over. The Golden Knights were charged with a combined 21 giveaways in the first two games. Gallant said his team has been pretty responsible with the puck in the neutral zone, but it’s been in the Capitals zone where they have not been able to bear down.
“I think the biggest problem we’ve had is we’re in the offensive zone and turning pucks over down there,” Gallant said after Saturday’s morning skate. “We’re not getting pucks to the net. They’re taking the puck from their zone and they have a four-man attack. It hasn’t been in the neutral zone, it’s been in the offensive zone. We have to make sure we’re strong on that puck and take it to the net a little bit more.”
There’s no doubt the Capitals have frustrated the Golden Knights with their 1-3-1 defensive system, which has done a lot to nullify their speed. But a fast team can still beat the trap if it does the right things. “You have to play quick to try and you try to catch them before they get into their structure,” said Golden Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt. “You play a little more direct. Instead of trying to go through those first couple of guys they don’t get that set-up as clean as they want.”
There has been some notion that the Knights might want to step up their physical game, but the reality is that they’ve pretty much matched the Capitals hit-for-hit in this series, with the Capitals having a 71-62 advantage. And for the Golden Knights to start looking for hits would take them out of what has made them so successful this season. It’s not that they can’t play a physical game, but it’s really not in their character. And as Gallant said on Friday, it’s way too deep in the season to start deviating from a game plan that has been so successful. And if the Knights have the puck on their sticks as much as they have in the past, the hitting won’t be necessary.
“When one team has a lot of hits, it means the other team has the puck,” Schmidt said. “It’s a simple as that. We can play a lot of different games, a lot of different styles. The one that best suits us though is when we’re skating, we’re holding onto it, we’re making plays and we’re being direct.”
What the Knights have to do now is put the first two games behind them and focus on what lies ahead. Nobody knows that more than Alex Tuch, whose point-blank shot was stopped by Capitals goalie Braden Holtby with less than two minutes to go in Game 2. It has simply become known as ‘The Save’ and has so far provided the seminal moment in the Stanley Cup final.
“It was a hockey play, it happens,” Tuch said. “I was a little aggravated for a couple hours after the game, but it happens and I’ve put it behind me. Maybe I’ll pull a fast one and get lucky tonight. I can’t let it eat away at me. It happens all the time.”
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