Day 53 of 2018 Stanley Quips: Meeting in the Middle

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AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

In a night that couldn’t have been more perfect in Washington DC, the Capitals were able to take a 2-1 series lead over Vegas on Saturday thanks to a 60-minute performance in which they didn’t look like wavering.

Even in a first period that looked energetic from both parties, the Capitals looked like they had the better of the chances. Surely enough, Washington broke through with so much net crashing to start the second period, the entire goal might as well have been disintegrated after Alex Ovechkin was able to score. The extreme amount of effort shown by the Capitals by way of blocking shots, constantly looking for rebounds and removing any chances of Vegas collecting rebound opportunities was almost another tier higher than what was witnessed in Game 6 of their Conference Finals series with Tampa.

There wasn’t a more perfect example than T.J. Oshie blocking a shot from the point, scooping the loose puck and passing it to Jay Beagle to start the breakout. Next, Beagle was able to start the entry with a pass to Evgeny Kuznetsov, who simply lolled Marc-Andre Fleury to sleep with his hesitation before shooting it casually under his blocker. As soon as he arrived at the bench, Oshie looked gassed out after his heroics, but teammates made sure to recognize his efforts in their celebration after Kuznetsov scored.

Now Vegas did score in the most Washington Capitals mess-up possible via an errant pass by Braden Holtby to start the third period, but lest we forget two things. First, please tell me you’ve watched Vegas before the Stanley Cup Final because this is basically how they cashed in soooooooo many times towards weaker puck handler Connor Hellebuyk in the Conference Finals. That’s how rabid their forecheck is when it is at its peak and Washington should be aware of this ever since Tomas Nosek’s game winner in Game 1. Second, Capitals teams in the past would have put their heads down in skepticism and quivered in fear hoping to get out of the game with a nerve-wracking 2-1 win.

Instead, Washington fought to the core as they did from the word go. By the way, I also have forgotten Washington’s greatest quality this postseason: their ability to out-skate opposition by waving off icing calls. No one has exemplified this quality more than Chandler Stephenson, who made the pass to Devante Smith-Pelly for the clinching goal in that same Game 6 of the Tampa Series. Whether it is through osmosis or not, other Capitals have joined in on the fun of simply out-racing their man to loose pucks and it is simply creating the psychological advantage Washington has been looking for for generations.

One major example is Matt Niskanen beating Shea Theodore to a loose puck to put the Capitals from a penalty killing situation to drawing a penalty on Fleury to set up 4-on-4 play. The other, is the one where Jay Beagle (yes, JAY BEAGLE!!!!) outhustles Theodore to a loose puck in the offensive zone and makes the same behind the net pass to Smith-Pelly for the clincher! Man, is Smith-Pelly going to rob the tar out of Garth Snow after his contract runs out or what!!! It can’t be stated enough that Stephenson’s improvement as a hockey player, and Trotz allowance for the likes of him, Jakub Vrana and Burakovsky to be themselves is arguably the biggest reason why Washington is a different team than even month’s past, let alone postseason’s past.

Once that third goal went in, all of Chinatown went from holding their breath to counting down the seconds to rush to the Portrait Gallery steps. Can it seriously make sense that these Capitals are now two wins away from being Champions?

When you take a deep dive towards the numbers, Vegas might be getting the edge in shot attempts all series (149.9-140.7 when score-adjusted at even strength), but Washington has outperformed them by way of unblocked attempts (111.3-101.4), scoring chances (64.4-60.7), and high-definition chances (30.6-26.2). That’s why it makes sense for the Capitals to have their series-long 10-9 scoreline, line up with their 8.39-7.19 expected goals scoreline, according to moneypuck.com.

Now that doesn’t mean Washington is benefitting without a hint of puck luck. During the series, the Capitals currently have a 103.6 PDO, while Vegas is sitting at 96.4. Considering that the Golden Knights have a 103.3 PDO all postseason, that drop off is shocking. I just don’t see how you can keep the Jonathan Marchessault-Reilly Smith-William Karlsson line off the scoresheet for so long, especially when they are hounding Washington’s top forward line and defense pair in puck possession this series. The same applies to how opportunistic Washington’s fourth line was last night despite still being the worst forward line between the two teams. In short, I just can’t envision the Golden Knight’s whiffing on so many behind-the-net-to-back door passes like they did last Saturday ever again.

What has been standing out has been Washington pounding away at Vegas’ depth scoring. There’s a reason why David Perron, a man that may have racked up 66 points in the regular season but is without a single goal in 14 playoff games and has generated a team-worst 35.6% puck possession in the Cup Final, is getting healthy scratched for Tomas Tatar. Somewhere, trillions of Pittsburgh Penguins fans are reminded why Perron was a joke to them and why they traded him for Carl Hagelin in the first place. Now James Neal and Alex Tuch have what it takes to break out via the eye test, but the likes of Oshie, Burakovsky, Nicklas Backstrom and Lars Eller have just been way too overwhelming at both ends of the ice and none of Vegas’ middle six guys have been able to get going consistently with the pucks on their stick.

So yeah, that’s why Washington is in a 2-1 series lead and long may it continue. The sun is shining today and after so much rain in the area over the past month, nothing would be more glorious than to see this hockey team head back to Vegas with one win away from destiny.

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