Bruins

Capitals on verge of Cup after blowing out Golden Knights

capitals.jpg
USA TODAY Sports Photo

Capitals on verge of Cup after blowing out Golden Knights

WASHINGTON -- Evgeny Kuznetsov smiled about getting four assists. He tried not to smile too much at the thought of being one win away from the Stanley Cup.

With Kuznetsov and goaltender Braden Holtby leading the way, the Washington Capitals are on the verge of capturing the first title in their 43rd season after routing the Vegas Golden Knights 6-2 on Monday night to take a commanding 3-1 series lead.

Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals will get their first chance to hoist the Cup in Game 5 on Thursday night in Las Vegas.

One more win.

"I've never been there," Kuznetsov said after just the fourth four-assist game in Cup Final history. "And I don't really care about that yet, so it's kind of easy for me. You know me, I always stay loose a little bit especially off the games. I'm pretty sure when game gonna come, we're gonna a little bit think about it. It's pretty hard to not think about that."

T.J. Oshie, Tom Wilson and Devante Smith-Pelly all scored in the first period to get the Capitals rolling against a determined Vegas team that has not found consistent answers against Holtby, who stopped 28 shots in another strong showing. The Golden Knights outchanced the Capitals by a wide margin but fell apart after James Neal clanked a shot off the post instead of hitting a wide-open net early, and the expansion team's Cinderella run could be over in a matter of days.

"It probably changes the game," Neal said. "It's probably a different game after that I had a wide-open net, and then I just hit the post."

John CarlsonMichal Kempny and Brett Connolly also scored as thunderous chants of "We want the Cup! We want the Cup!" rang out from the crowd. No team since the Detroit Red Wings in 1942 has blown a 3-1 lead in the Cup Final.

"It can be easy in a game where you can clinch to get a little bit ahead of ourselves," Oshie said. "But we've got a good group of leaders in the room ... and we'll be focused at the start."

The Capitals seem to be getting enough bounces to make up for nine previous first- or second-round playoff exits in the Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom era - and plenty of disappointments in the previous decades, too.

While Vegas rang several shots off the posts, the Capitals seized just about every opportunity as they have throughout this surprising run. Kuznetsov padded his lead as the playoffs' leading scorer with primary assists on Oshie's power-play goal that made it 1-0 and Wilson's that doubled the lead.

"He just tells me to put my stick on the ice and he'll hit it," Wilson said of Kuznetsov. "It's a privilege to play with him. He's one of the best at his craft."

Smith-Pelly, who scored the insurance goal to ice Game 3, kicked the puck from his left skate to his stick and roofed a shot on Marc-Andre Fleury with 20.5 seconds left in the first period. Fleury came into the final as the Conn Smythe front-runner for playoff MVP honors but looked human again by allowing six goals on 23 shots at a defense that has often left him vulnerable.

Fleury called the loss "frustrating and demoralizing." Coach Gerard Gallant was quick to absolve his goaltender of blame.

"At least five of the six goals were wide-open nets," Gallant said. "Nothing he could do on them."

Kuznetsov leads all playoff scorers with 31 points, Ovechkin is tied for the goal lead with 14 and Holtby showed again his ability to alter the course of a game. Holtby got some good fortune from the post on shots by Alex Tuch, Neal and Brayden McNabb, but he also had not allowed a goal in more than 62 minutes stretching back to Game 3.

"We obviously got some breaks at the start of the game," Holtby said. "Honestly I thought (Neal's shot) was in, my angle, and somehow it didn't go in."

Somehow, the Capitals have turned around their results at home, winning their past three in Washington after losing five of their first eight. This one got chippy at the end when Oshie broke Vegas defenseman Colin Miller's nose on a hit and was given a game-ending 10-minute misconduct along with Golden Knights forwards Deryk Engelland and Ryan Reaves.

"It is not ideal, but it is the Stanley Cup finals and everyone wants to win," Backstrom said.

Pierre-Edouard Bellemare said he and his Vegas teammates can't win three games in one night, so they have no choice but to focus on the next opportunity to stave off elimination.

Coach Barry Trotz wants his players to relax and not think too much about the chance in front of them.

"You have the opportunity to do something special as a group, but it's going to be the hardest thing to do, the hardest game to win because there's a very good team on the other side, a very proud team," Trotz said. "They're great in their building. We're not scared of their building. We've proved it that we're very good on the road and we're going to go there and put our best effort in there."

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Watch Bruins break out into fake line brawl at the end of practice

Watch Bruins break out into fake line brawl at the end of practice

The Bruins have clearly been stuck in a rut as of late while losing back-to-back regulation games for the first time this season, and stuck in a three-game losing streak where they developed some bad habits at the end of an eight-game winning streak.

It’s not really that big of a deal for a B’s hockey club that still holds a double-digit lead in the division, but a 5-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Monday night really didn’t set them up for a promising road trip with Washington, Tampa Bay and Florida all on the schedule for the rest of the week. With that in mind, the Bruins opted for a little stress relief at the end of Tuesday’s practice in Washington as things devolved into a chaotic, raucous faux line brawl on the ice.

It all started with Tuukka Rask giving up a goal at the end of a game at practice and then smashing his stick repeatedly over the crossbar, and then mass chaos ensued with a sea of Bruins players tackling each other on the ice.

It’s fun to see the Bruins blow off some steam and show they can have a little fun amidst a frustrating stretch, but it would also be nice to see them play with the same kind of energy in their games after sleepwalking through the first portions of games during their current losing streak.

In the old time hockey days, a team might have pre-planned a line brawl situation on the ice to snap out of a slump, or change the energy at a time when the schedule is getting demanding on the players with the Christmas break still weeks away.

But these days the Bruins will have to settle for a little phony shoving and play-punching against each other at the end of practice with the real thing — a big, tough customer in the Washington Capitals — getting ready to host them for a potential Eastern Conference Final preview on Wednesday night.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.

How Bruce Cassidy could shake up lines to give struggling Bruins a jolt

How Bruce Cassidy could shake up lines to give struggling Bruins a jolt

Hard times have arrived for the Bruins, at least temporarily.

Boston has lost two regulation games in a row for the first time all season and three games in a row for just the second time all season while falling into complacency with a massive 11-point lead in the Atlantic Division over the next closest team in Florida.

Since dropping eight goals against the Canadiens in an embarrassing blowout win at the Bell Centre a couple of weeks ago, the offense has also slowed down for the Bruins with 16 goals scored over the last seven games. Some of it was about Patrice Bergeron being out of the lineup with a lower body injury, but some of it might also be the team literally crying out for some changes among the forward group combinations.

Now with Bergeron back after scoring a goal against the Senators on Monday night, Bruce Cassidy can actually fool around with his tried and true combinations.

With that in mind, here’s a modest proposal for some line combinations that might just work for the Black and Gold with it feeling like things have gotten a little stale over the last week as ennui seems to have struck with a Bruins team not getting pushed by anybody right now:

Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-Anders Bjork

This is perhaps Boston’s best chance to mix and match their forward lines while looking to get some diversity in their scoring attack during 5-on-5 play. Bjork brings the same kind of skating speed and youthful exuberance that David Pastrnak already brings to this line, and it seems that now Bjork understands the doggedness and two-way responsibilities he’ll need to pay attention to in order to stay at the NHL level.

Best of all, playing with Marchand and Bergeron could give Bjork more scoring opportunities and really boost his confidence to turn into the goal-scoring source he was projected to be when he first signed with the Bruins. The trick would be switching Bjork from left wing to his off-wing on the right side where he’s had challenges in the past, but it seems like he’s better-equipped to deal with it now that he’s healthy and a couple of years into his NHL career.

Jake DeBrusk-David Krejci-David Pastrnak

There are Bruins fans everywhere clamoring for Krejci and Pastrnak to play together given their natural, Czech-born chemistry and some of the success that they have had in the past. Sliding Pastrnak down to the B’s second line would really make each of Boston’s top two lines formidable in their own right, and make them much more difficult to defend while not being quite as top-heavy as they are with the Perfection Line.

The one concern in the past has been that Pastrnak doesn’t score at quite the same rate when he’s away from Bergeron and Marchand, and that DeBrusk-Krejci-Pastrnak can probably be exploited a bit defensively. That’s part of the reason Danton Heinen is with them right now given his attention to detail playing a strong two-way game. But Krejci and Pastrnak can be fun to watch and could bring some pizzazz to the second line.

Danton Heinen-Charlie Coyle-David Backes 

This would be a return to the third-line glory years of a couple of seasons ago when Heinen and Backes were the two wings and Riley Nash was the center who seemed to bring the best out of them. This line certainly wouldn’t be the fastest given that Coyle is the best skater of the three, but it would be offensively viable with all three forwards capable of scoring 15-plus goals in a season.

Also, the massive size of both 6-foot-3, 220-pound Coyle and 6-foot-3, 215-pound Backes would give the Bruins' third line a heavy, thumping style of play that could wear down other teams while playing the puck possession game. They wouldn’t be all that dynamic, but it could be a really effective third line if the top two forward lines are based on speed and skill.

Chris Wagner-Sean Kuraly-Brett Ritchie

Certainly an argument could be made for Joakim Nordstrom to be here and really he’s done nothing to get taken out of the lineup. But this humble hockey writer’s opinion is that the fourth line isn’t playing with the same jam and physicality as consistently as they did last season, and that is a big-time need on this Bruins team this season.

So this combo could be a big, heavy and punishing group capable of both playing against other teams' top lines and bringing energy, thump, or whatever is needed for a group that is going through the motions right now. A lot of it comes down to Ritchie, though, who needs to play to his size and strength more often if it’s all going to work. Otherwise the Bruins might as well just go with Nordstrom and utilize Ritchie as their extra forward until the light bulb goes off for him.

Bonus line combo: Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-Charlie Coyle

This isn’t likely to be a line combo you’ll see much unless injuries hit, but shifting the big, strong Coyle to the wing and bringing his power forward game to the top line could be a great match.

Certainly Coyle might not be the shoot-first presence that one is usually looking for at the right wing spot alongside Bergeron and Marchand, but the one consistent way to frustrate that line is for a big defensive corps to wear them down physically while pushing them away from the net. It’s what the Tampa defense did successfully in the playoffs a couple of years ago and it’s what St. Louis was able to do against them in the Stanley Cup Final last season.

Coyle would make it a lot more difficult to push around the other two parts of the Perfection Line, and that could be a successful look against bigger D-men personnel. It would require Par Lindholm to be inserted into the lineup (and Backes or Ritchie scratched) as the third-line center, but that’s entirely doable based on Boston’s forward depth.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.