Capitals shaking off 44 years of bad luck, just one win from Cup glory

The Washington Capitals jumped to an early 3-0 lead in the first period and never looked back en route to a 6-2 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 4.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Tony Robbins is embracing Jay Beagle.

The world’s most famous life coach has become a buddy of Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis and is clearly on friendly terms with a group of players who now find themselves one win away from lifting the Stanley Cup.

When Robbins reached Beagle in a celebratory home dressing room on Monday night, he spoke with certainty: “You’re going to close this one out this time.”

Beagle didn’t blink.

“It’s our time. It’s our time.”

It just feels that way, doesn’t it?

If you are someone who believes in signs, a pivotal Game 4 in this championship series delivered a strong one before it was even five minutes old. The Vegas Golden Knights had labelled this a must-win situation and came out charging, seeing an early Alex Tuch tip hit the post and spin to safety.

Then they were given a power play and James Neal found himself with a moment so big he might never forget it so long as he walks this Earth – staring at a completely empty four-by-six net behind Braden Holtby, the same size as those he’s scored 293 NHL goals into. This time Neal fired and hit the inside post, watching in horror as the puck caromed off Holtby’s blocker and stayed out.

Every long-suffering Capitals fan had no choice but jump to the same conclusion: Where has good fortune like that been these last 44 years?

“To be honest, I thought it was in [from] my angle, and somehow it didn’t go in,” said Holtby.

“Sometimes it’s luck, sometimes you need that kind of bounce,” added captain Alex Ovechkin after a 6-2 Washington victory. “It’s a big moment for us.”

It was followed by an avalanche of goals that left his Capitals just 60 minutes away from the Stanley Cup that has eluded this organization since the Gerald Ford administration. Ovechkin could take that trophy from Gary Bettman as soon as Thursday night in Las Vegas – something that would surely be followed by them painting the town red.

They’ve guaranteed themselves at least three chances at closing it out after building a 3-1 series lead.

Somewhere along the way the Capitals have developed an unmistakeable mental fortitude. Amazingly, this group found itself in a 2-0 hole to Columbus in Round 1 and had to pull out an overtime victory on the road in Game 3.

After navigating their way through that, they don’t seem like candidates to let this moment get the best of them. They’ve proven adept at keeping their thoughts on the moment at hand.

“It’s easy to let your mind wander. It’s been one of our strengths to make sure that we’re in the right place mentally,” said defenceman John Carlson. “I think everyone knows the stakes. There’s nothing, no opportunity that’s going to pass by that we’re not going to give it all we’ve got.

“That stays with us, the same mentality that we’ve had after losing the first game against Columbus. Come back with a better plan, better execution, make the plays that we know we can make – that gives you a better chance to win.”

There was plenty of opportunity for them to wobble on Monday.

The shot attempts were 14-3 in favour of the visitors when T.J. Oshie opened the scoring against the run of play at 9:54. He kicked the puck up to his stick after an Evgeny Kuznetsov shot was stopped and had Capital One Arena shaking on its foundation.

The Golden Knights have been carried by the Jonathan Marchessault-William KarlssonReilly Smith line throughout this dream expansion season, but that trio was burned twice before the intermission. They were caught out for more than 90 seconds because of an icing when Kuznetsov won an offensive zone faceoff and pulled off a lovely give-and-go with Tom Wilson at 16:26.

Then it was Devante Smith-Pelly’s turn to get in on the fun, keeping the puck in at his own blue line and kicking it up to his stick before making 3-0 with 20.5 seconds left.

Good night, Golden Knights.

“We knew they were going to come,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz. “They talked about putting their game out and they did. And they didn’t get anything out of it.”

Vegas did what it could to keep hope alive – Brayden McNabb hit a third post in the second period – but wound up falling another goal behind when Carlson snuck into Ovechkin’s spot on the power play and wired a one-timer past Marc-Andre Fleury.

It was Evgeny Kuznetsov who found the UFA-to-be open in the circle, part of a four-assist night that pushed him to 31 points in a spring that might finish with him lifting the Conn Smythe Trophy. The Russian centre is just the sixth player with at least 30 points in one playoff campaign since 1996.

Neal’s goal arrived 41 minutes too late – he broke Holtby’s shutout bid early in the third period – and then Smith, Michal Kempny and Brett Connolly exchanged academic tallies.

The Golden Knights finished ahead 53-28 in even-strength shot attempts, fuelled in part by the fact they chased the game for the final 50 minutes. It’s going to be a tough loss to shake off.

Hockey, man. It’ll break your heart. You need some breaks in a sport played with vulcanized rubber on ice.

“That’s one of the beautiful things about our profession and life in general, just that at any time there’s adversity, if you take the right mindset and surround yourself with the right people, you can come out stronger,” said Holtby, who started these playoffs watching from the bench. “It’s fun. It’s why we play, to challenge yourself in different areas to see if you can push yourself through. Our group has done that as a whole this year, too.

“That’s made us strong individually and collectively through this year.”

The Capitals have been knocked down repeatedly and fought on. They’ve had at least three teams in the Ovechkin Era that have been stronger on paper than this one.

But this is the one that could be remembered here forever.

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