The Capitals vs. a miracle: Each side has a case

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The Washington Capitals‘ Game 4 victory gave them a commanding 3-1 lead in the Stanley Cup Final over the Vegas Golden Knights.

Evgeny Kuznetsov couldn’t help but hear the echoing chants from the crowd: “We want the Cup!”

“We feel their energy. I don’t want to lie,” he said. “Sometimes you feel when people cheering against you, you feel the energy too. In this playoff, we’re not very good at home, but in this series, we keep the crowd happy. That’s big thing for us.”

The series seems like it’s in their grasp … or is it?

Here’s a look at why the Capitals have got this and some reasons the Stanley Cup might still be a possibility for the expansion darlings from Sin City.


The Capitals have this because … taking a 3-1 lead in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final is pretty much winning the Stanley Cup. Teams that have taken a 3-1 series lead in the Final have gone on to win the Cup 31 straight times. Overall, they’re 32-1 since best-of-seven series were added to the playoffs in 1939. The only time a team has rallied to win the Cup was in 1942, when the Toronto Maple Leafs roared back to “reverse sweep” the Detroit Red Wings 4-3. Through the first three rounds of the playoffs, teams have trailed a best-of-seven series by 3-1 300 times in NHL history. Only 28 of them have come back to win. Best of luck, Knights.

The Golden Knights have a chance because … history is not on Vegas’ side here. Forgive me if you’ve heard that before. Need I remind you that this is a team that opened with 500-1 odds to win the Stanley Cup? That every member of this self-proclaimed band of misfits felt slighted at some point in the past year, then 15 went on to have career years, pointswise? As David Perron reminded us this week, nearly everyone counted the Golden Knights out after they were outclassed by Winnipeg in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. Vegas went on to win four straight games to clinch it. It feels fitting for them to have to overcome an even greater deficit to claim the grand prize.

“It’s the Final,” Pierre-Edouard Bellemare said. “Nothing easy is good.”

The Capitals have this because … their team defense is machine-like, their goaltender is saving everything, and the stuff he isn’t saving is bouncing off his posts. Washington owns so much of the neutral zone that it might start asking Vegas to pay rent to use it. The Caps have taken away the front of the net: 10 of the Golden Knights’ past 19 goals were scored on the doorstep of the goaltender, yet they’ve scored none in that manner since Game 1 of the Final.

“As a group, this is the most committed group that I’ve been with,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “I don’t think it’s the most talented team I’ve been on. But it’s the most committed to the dirty, unheralded plays.”

Holtby now has a .919 save percentage in the series and .945 in the Caps’ three wins. Again: When James Neal is staring at that much net for that long and can only put it off the post in Game 4, it’s clear that Holtby either has a force field up or can subtly manipulate iron like Magneto.

The Golden Knights have a chance because … believe it or not, they didn’t play that badly in Game 4. Rather, they had chances that just didn’t go in. Through two periods, Vegas held a 10-2 high-danger chance advantage at even strength. And let’s not forget the posts, Braden Holtby‘s best friends. Had Neal’s wide-open look in the first period gone in, we’re talking about a totally different game — and series. Over the past two games, the Golden Knights have hit a whopping seven posts. Vegas was buoyed by its top line all season that, yes, posted an incredibly high shooting percentage. In the Final, the combo of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith has combined to shoot 9.1 percent. Was this inevitable regression? That’s the lens of a pessimist. It could mean they’re overdue for some major puck luck in the games ahead.

The Capitals have this because … it’s clear they, not the Golden Knights, are the team of destiny. They eliminated Columbus and coach John Tortorella, who tormented them with the Rangers, in the first round. They eliminated their archrivals the Pittsburgh Penguins, for only the second time in franchise history, in the second round. They eliminated a bunch of former Rangers and a former Penguin in Chris Kunitz and won a rare Game 7 in ousting Tampa Bay. They had only two big bosses remaining: the team their former GM George McPhee built, featuring former Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. They’re in the process of bludgeoning both.

“We’re trying to write our own story here,” Capitals forward T.J. Oshie said. “We don’t dwell much on the past. There’s been heartbreak here. We know that. But that’s kind of scarred over and made us stronger for it.”

The Golden Knights have a chance because … it hasn’t even been three months since 16th-seeded UMBC shocked Virginia; if you don’t believe in sports miracles, you sure have a short memory. Look, the hockey gods tend to reward those who work the hardest and grind the longest. Alex Ovechkin & Co. certainly fit the mold. But so do many members of these Golden Knights. No, they haven’t been together as a unit very long, but that doesn’t make any of them any less deserving.


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Devante Smith-Pelly stops a deflected puck with his skate and flips it into the net for the Capitals’ third goal of the first period.

OK, so we’ve covered why the Capitals and Golden Knights have this. But what if they don’t?

The Capitals might not have this because … what if this entire run, this whole magical journey on which Ovechkin seems destined to hoist the Stanley Cup, the Capitals seem destined to finally raise the ultimate banner and the District of Columbia seems poised to celebrate its first pro sports championship since 1992 … what if this ends up being the ultimate answer to the question that has sent Capitals fans into the fetal position for three decades: “How will they blow it this time?”

The Golden Knights might be finished because … Fleury is no longer playing out of his mind. Tomas Tatar wasn’t the offensive spark in Game 4, and any lineup changes for Gerard Gallant from here would just be desperation (really, you think inserting Oscar Lindberg could be the answer? Yeah, don’t answer that). The team of high shooting percentage and overachieving darlings finally fell to earth. Yes, it came later than any of us could have expected. Indeed, it was a magical ride. Let’s cherish it for what it was.

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