WASHINGTON—At this point, the biggest potential disappointment for long-suffering Washington Capitals fans might be not getting to witness their beloved team winning the Stanley Cup in person.
The Capitals know better than anyone that nothing is over until it’s over. But after Monday night’s 6–2 victory in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final, Washington seems poised, incredibly, to wrap things up Thursday night in Las Vegas.
That would deprive their red-rocking faithful of a chance to witness the denouement in person (unless they have plenty of frequent flyer miles and vacation time). But chances are, there would be few complaints from those who have waited 44 years (or some fraction thereof) to celebrate.
When your goalie plays the way Braden Holtby has performed over the past three games; when your fourth-line wing scores for the second straight game; and when you outscore your rival 3–0 in the first period despite being outshot, you’re on to something.
And while it’s no foregone conclusion, it’s hard to imagine the expansion Golden Knights turning things around enough to win three straight games after being dominated so thoroughly over the past 120 minutes of play. Previous incarnations of the Capitals have squandered advantages, but this group seems far more resilient.
Holtby didn’t even start Washington’s playoff opener. But he rescued the Capitals with a save whose legend will grow with time late in Game 2 of the final, when his team was in danger of falling into a 2–0 deficit. He made a similarly dazzling stop on Vegas’ James Neal early in a scoreless Game 4.
Neal’s shot hit the post after Holtby got the tip of his catching glove on it. Brayden McNabb’s second-period wrister also drew iron when Holtby was screened, giving credence to coach Barry Trotz’s frequent claim that the hockey gods usually eventually even things out. And few teams have run into hot playoff goalies more often than Washington.
But while a little good fortune never hurts (especially this time of year), these Capitals have earned their place at the threshold of history. Ever since Holtby’s Game 2 theft, they have completely dominated the Golden Knights, stolen their spirit like some medieval enchantress and frustrated them into cheap penalties.
Vegas actually outshot the Capitals Monday night, but Washington has dominated nearly every important aspect of the past three games: faceoffs, hits, blocked shots and power play efficiency. The defense in front of Holtby has been stingy ever since a topsy-turvy Game 1, when Trotz claimed that both teams were “out of their minds” due to nerves.
Rising star Evgeny Kuznetsov, who posted four assists Monday night, is giving Holtby a run for series MVP. He and Metro’s favorite rider, T.J. Oshie, have complemented Alex Ovechkin perfectly. Oshie had a goal and two assists Monday.
But the Capitals are also getting goals from unexpected sources. Journeyman Devante Smith–Pelly has scored in each of the past two wins. And Tom Wilson, whose ice time was limited earlier in the playoffs by a three-game suspension and repeated penalties, also beat Marc–Andre Fleury Monday night. So did defenseman Michal Kempny.
And with each victory, the Capitals’ confidence grows exponentially. The core of this team (Ovechkin, Niklas Backstrom, John Carlson) hasn’t forgotten a humiliating 5–0 elimination loss to the New York Rangers five years ago. This squad has a lot of new faces, but the nucleus seems intent on wreaking vengeance on Vegas for past disappointments.
There are still 60 minutes remaining between Washington and its holy grail, and this franchise has endured enough heartbreak to take nothing for granted.
Even though they’d probably prefer to take their first sips from the Stanley Cup on home ice, the Capitals certainly wouldn’t mind if their finest hour comes Thursday night. If that happens, what happens in Vegas certainly won’t stay there.