It’s the hockey equivalent of Christmas Eve, but the Washington Capitals are trying not to think about the big, shiny trophy that will be theirs Thursday if they defeat the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final.
“For me personally, I don’t try to think about it too much what’s going on and just try focusing on different things. But it’s hard,” forward Alexander Ovechkin said.
What kind of things? “Whatever. Cars. Hotels. You know, Vegas,” he said.
The Capitals have so far avoided the city’s distractions. They began a three-game winning streak with a victory at T-Mobile Arena in Game 2, and they’ve outscored the Golden Knights 12-5 in that span. Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, so masterful in the first three rounds of the expansion team’s run to the Final, has looked mortal against the skillful, physical Capitals. To be fair, his teammates’ defensive lapses have forced him to face many high-quality chances.
“He’s been saving all the first shots. You can’t give up back-door, tap-ins, second and third opportunities,” Vegas defenseman Brayden McNabb said. “We have to be better. Flower [Fleury] is going to make those saves we need. We know we haven’t played our game in the first four games. We have a lot more to give.”
The Golden Knights must find their game Thursday or they’ll watch the Capitals passing the Cup around. Washington’s neutral-zone-clogging and quick transitions have given Vegas fits, muting Vegas’ top line of Jonathan Marchessault (two assists in the Final), William Karlsson (one goal), and Reilly Smith (two goals).
“When you look back at the first four games you realize that's not what you want. That's not the blueprint for what makes us successful,” defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “But at the same time, it shows us the blueprint for what makes us not successful. You look at what didn't work in games. Sometimes, you have to rewind the tape and can't look at everything as sunshine and daisies. We look at what can be adjusted with their game. You learn from that. You don't, you're a schmuck. If you can't learn from your mistakes, it's on you.”
The Capitals have learned that the Golden Knights feed off the staggeringly loud noise of the crowds at T-Mobile Arena, and they’re prepared. “I think they’re going to have a big push. They’re going to be really desperate to play well and have a fast start, so we’re going to have to have our legs moving and really be mentally sharp,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “We’re going to have to play well to beat them. If we play well we’re going to have a really good chance to beat them.”
The Capitals have a checkered playoff past, to put it politely, having blown 3-1 series leads five of the 12 times they’ve led by that margin. But this group seems different, less fragile in the face of adversity. Although they’ve lost players to injuries and have trailed in each of the four rounds this spring, they’ve responded with vigor and determination.