There’s no shortage of reasons why the Capitals hold a 3-1 lead in the Stanley Cup Final and on the brink of delivering the final death blow to the playoff demons that have mercilessly tortured the franchise for the better part of the past decade.
Karmically, after years of having nearly everything go against them at the most inopportune moments, this type of magical post-season where the pendulum finally swung in their favour has been a long time coming. Extended playoff success is typically predicated on a healthy combination of skill and luck, and in the case of this Capitals team they’ve certainly enjoyed their share of both.
In a series where the two teams are relatively evenly matched as these two are, there’s also usually a certain number of high leverage moments that ultimately determine the outcome. Ever since the blown call on the Ryan Reaves cross check against John Carlson in front of the net that directly led to the equalizing goal in an eventual Game 1 win for Vegas, seemingly every one of those pivotal sequences has gone Washington’s way.
In Game 2 there was the listless 68 second 5-on-3 for the Golden Knights when they trailed by just one goal and failed to muster anything of consequence offensively, which was promptly overshadowed by the legendary paddle save by Braden Holtby on Alex Tuch with the clock winding down. Most recently in Game 4, the Knights came out of the gate on fire, generating one scoring chance after another and striking iron multiple times. But after coming away with nothing to show for their spirited efforts – highlighted by James Neal’s misfire on an open cage – the Capitals came back down and converted three times in rapid succession, turning the final two periods into a formality.
To the Capitals’ credit, they haven’t exactly been passive bystanders of the situation. They came into this series with a well choreographed game plan for how to go about neutralizing all of the things Vegas did to get this far, and Washington has executed its plan well.
It helps that Marc-Andre Fleury has returned to planet earth and more closely resembled a mere mortal, stopping just 84.5 per cent of the shots he’s faced in the first four games of the series after entering it with a .947 save percentage in three rounds. Beyond just being blessed with more finishing talent and ability than most teams, the Capitals have also made life that much more difficult for both Fleury and the defenders in front of him with their passing sequences in the offensive zone.
At the other end of the ice the Knights’ top line has mustered just three goals at five-on-five in nearly 60 minutes of ice time in this series, after having previously torched anyone that got in their way all year long. When Vegas has been in the offensive zone cycling the puck like they’ve done in the past, Washington has done a tremendous job of keeping them to the perimeter. In the rare instances the Knights managed to penetrate that defensive shell, the Capitals have compensated for it by blocking seemingly every shot.
Combine all of that with Washington’s unique zone breakout scheme built around their forwards, with centres Evgeny Kuznetsov, Lars Eller and Nicklas Backstrom coming back to retrieve the puck and ease the pressure on their defencemen. This has made it more difficult for Vegas’ forecheck to create turnovers and transition from defence to offence, and the easy scoring opportunities have been few and far between for the Golden Knights.
What’s really become apparent as the series has progressed is just how calculated the Capitals have been with all of their choices. They’ve done a tremendous job forcing Vegas to play the game at the pace they’d prefer, and just as importantly, the Caps have gotten the specific personnel matchups they’ve been targeting.
In the lead-up to this series, we noted the philosophical differences between how the two respective coaches would ideally like to deploy their forwards. Hockey is a game composed of moves and counters, similar to a chess match where the pieces are moved around sequentially in the pursuit of finding an opportunity to strike.
This is where Barry Trotz and the Capitals have really managed to flex their muscles, routinely staying one step ahead of Gerard Gallant and the Knights. Perhaps the most subtly telling trend of all has been Washington’s ability to get their top offensive duo in Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin further and further away from William Karlsson’s line, which is the matchup Vegas would prefer and will try to focus on in Game 5.
Gallant said he expects to match the Karlsson line against the Kuznetsov line more often in Game 5. Caps have been matching Backstrom vs Karlsson. #VegasBorn
— David Schoen (@DavidSchoenLVRJ) June 7, 2018
With each game to this point, the two Capitals stars have seen the percentage of time they’re on the ice at five-on-five against Karlsson’s line whittled down:
The thing about players like Ovechkin and Kuznetsov is there’s no way to completely stop them. Players that gifted and dynamic with the puck will eventually find a way to get theirs. The best you can do is to try and limit the damage by keeping the puck away from them as often as possible, and keeping them far from the offensive zone by forcing them to defend.
That’s why all of this is rather alarming for Vegas. Instead of giving themselves the best chance at accomplishing that by blanketing the Kuznetsov/Ovechkin duo with their own top line and making them work, the Knights have essentially given Washington’s best offensive players a free pass by serving up softer minutes with fewer defensive responsibilities on a silver platter. The Caps have unsurprisingly taken advantage of that, outscoring the Knights 5-1 in just under 50 minutes of five-on-five ice time with Kuznetsov on the ice.
A big part of what makes the Capitals so good and difficult to deal with is they’re able to free Ovechkin and Kuznetsov up to run wild because they’re also equipped with secondary options who are more than capable of shouldering that defensive workload. As the games shifted to Washington and the Capitals had the luxury of last change, they seemingly made a concerted effort to feed those responsibilities to the trio of Nicklas Backstrom, TJ Oshie, and Jakub Vrana.
That second line won’t get the attention or accolades of the one above them on the depth chart, but there’s an argument to be made that the role they’ve played in this series has been just as instrumental to the team’s success. Especially when you consider how badly exposed the Golden Knights’ second line has been under similar usage.
At the end of the day the NHL is still a player’s league. For everything else we want to discuss or attribute wins and losses to, they’re the ones that ultimately go on the ice, and determine the outcome of games and series based on how well they’re able to perform against their peers.
But it certainly makes it a lot easier when you’re put in a position to succeed as Washington’s coaches have done through this series.