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3 reasons the Caps beat the Golden Knights in Game 3

3 reasons the Caps beat the Golden Knights in Game 3

The Capitals earned their first-ever Stanley Cup final win at home on Saturday with their 3-1 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights. The win gives them a 2-1 series lead and puts them just two wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup.

Here are three reasons why the Caps were able to earn their second win of the series.

Evgeny Kuznetsov’s remarkable recovery

If you thought Kuznetsov’s postseason was over after he left the ice cradling his left arm in obvious pain in Game 2 after a hit from Brayden McNabb, you weren’t alone. Even if Kuznetsov somehow avoided a major injury, surely he would miss Game 3, right?

It turns out the Caps were not just playing mind games with Vegas when Kuznetsov practiced Friday and Saturday. He was ready to go for Game 3 and brought his A game.

Kuznetsov set up a 2-on-1 with Alex Ovechkin early in the game that was only kept out of the net by an inhuman save from Marc-Andre Fleury. And he also didn't lose anything off his shot either. On another 2-on-1 in the second period, Kuznetsov called his own number and rifled the puck past Fleury, the goalie who had befuddled the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and Winnipeg Jets to get to this point. Despite however much the injury was effecting him, Kuznetsov was still able to beat the likely Conn Smythe frontrunner for what would turn out to be the game-winner.

Who would have thought that was possible after seeing Kuznetsov come off the ice in Game 2?

Boxing out

Let’s compare the heat map for Game 1 vs. Game 3:

Game 1

Game 3

In Game 1, Vegas got plenty of opportunities from in front of the net and buried four 5-on-5 goals from that area. In Game 3 they were completely boxed out and their offense was never really able to get going at all. Their lone goal came off a misplay by Braden Holtby behind the net.

With the speed and frenetic energy Vegas plays with in the offensive zone, players can get lost in the mix. That’s what happened in Game 1. The Caps were caught chasing the puck and overcommitting leaving open chances in front of the net. That’s no longer the case.

Not only is Washington completely limiting Vegas' offensive opportunities by holding the blue line – the Golden Knights were held to just 22 shots on goal – but the Caps also were able to box out the front of the net.

Washington played positionally sound and did not chase. They also got sticks and bodies in passing and shooting lanes making sure Vegas was never able to get the puck where they wanted it to go.

Determination

Sometimes in a game, one team clearly looks better than the other and one team clearly out hustles the other. The Caps were that team on Saturday.

Washington’s first goal came on a mad scramble in front of the net. Kuznetsov had the initial shot, John Carlson crashed the net and Marc-Andre Fleury threw the puck into the corner. Wilson retrieved it, shot it off the side of the net to the slot. Fleury then saved shots from Kuznetsov and Carlson until finally Ovechkin struck it home.

It took four shots on goal to finally beat Fleury in that scrum which the Caps got because they beat the Vegas players to the puck every time.

Washington’s determination was exemplified by the play of Matt Niskanen at the end of the second period. Trying to kill off a Vegas power play, Niskanen got his stick in a passing lane, tipped the puck past a diving Jonathan Marchessault and chipped it past Shea Theodore. Theodore assumed Niskanen would be satisfied by just clearing the puck. Instead, Niskanen went off after it, beat Theodore to the puck and drew a tripping penalty from Fleury who came out of the net to challenge him.

And let’s not forget Devante Smith-Pelly who redeemed himself after taking two minor penalties by scoring the clinching goal in the third period, his fifth of the postseason after scoring just seven in the regular season.

This was a 100-percent effort game for the Caps. They were better and they were more determined than Vegas to win and it showed in every aspect.

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The Dougie Hamilton-Alex Ovechkin drama continued in Game 6 and the internet has thoughts

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NBC Sports

The Dougie Hamilton-Alex Ovechkin drama continued in Game 6 and the internet has thoughts

Alex Ovechkin's assist to Brett Connolly in Game 5 started when Carolina Hurricanes defender Dougie Hamilton shied away from Ovechkin's imminent check.

To start Game 6, Ovechkin tried to ram Hamilton along the boards again, but Hamilton sidestepped him to get the puck to safety.

After Ovechkin tumbled to the ice when he missed the hit, he made his way back to the bench, when he appeared to, well, you decide.

Ovechkin's mocking did not go unnoticed by the broadcast crew on NBC Sports Network or by fans on Twitter. "And there it is, that's what Eddie was talking about," chuckled Pierre McGuire as Ovechkin appeared to raise his arms like a clucking chicken.

The Hurricanes would respond with a goal to even the game 1-1, but Ovechkin answered back at 15:12 of the first period on an assist from Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen to make it 2-1 Capitals.

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The baffling exclusion of John Carlson from the Norris Trophy finalists

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USA TODAY Sports

The baffling exclusion of John Carlson from the Norris Trophy finalists

The finalists for the Norris Trophy – awarded to the defenseman who demonstrates the greatest all-around ability in the position – were unveiled on Sunday. Somehow, John Carlson was not among them.

This is the second consecutive year Carlson was a deserving candidate and the second year he will not even be among the top three.

The Norris Trophy is voted on by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association -- of which I am a member so I guess you can blame us -- but make no mistake, this is a snub in every sense of the word and a major oversight that Carlson cannot get the recognition he deserves.

Ballots will be made public after the awards are given out. Until then, we are not supposed to divulge exactly how we voted, but I will tell you that Carlson was in my top three, and he absolutely should have been a finalist this year.

If you had asked me prior to the 2017-18 season who the most important defenseman on the Caps was, I would have told you it was Matt Niskanen. I saw Carlson as an offensive-heavy player whose skills in his own zone were lacking. I had to eat those words later as Niskanen was injured in mid-October and missed the next month of the season. During that month, Carlson averaged 27:47 of ice-time per game, which led the entire league. He showed he could contribute offensively, defensively, on the power play and penalty kill. There was nothing he could not do.

Suddenly, the Caps’ top pairing of Dmitry Orlov and Niskanen was replaced by Carlson and whoever he was paired with. That continued into this season.

But while Carlson has reshaped his image in Washington, his reputation as an offensive first player instead of an all-around defenseman persists, and it cost him.

There is no set standard every voter sticks to when it comes to evaluating players for the Norris. You can look at whatever stats you want whether it is Corsi, Fenwick, points, PDO, defensive zone starts, high-danger chances for -- the list goes on. Here’s why Carlson was in the top three of my ballot: Not only did he play exceptionally well, but the Capitals relied on him more in more situations than any other team relied on a single defenseman.

Carlson finished the season ranked eighth in the NHL in time on ice per game at 25:04. Burns finished just ahead of him with 25:06. Both Giordano (24:14) and Hedman (22:46) played less.

Carlson was among the top 40 defensemen in shorthanded time on ice per game with 2:35, something only Giordano (2:40) could boast among the other finalists. Carlson was also first among all defensemen in power play time on ice per game with 4:05, significantly more than Hedman (3:19), Giordano (3:19) or Burns (3:17).

There is no situation in which the Caps are not comfortable putting Carlson out on the ice and no situation in which he is not expected to play heavy minutes. He has taken a bigger role defensively as the team’s top shutdown pair of Orlov-Niskanen has had a down year. Despite the heavier defensive workload, Carlson still managed to finish in the top four in points among defensemen with 70, a career-high.

I am not here saying that Burns, Giordano or Hedman are not deserving of being finalists. In fact, Carlson did not finish first on my ballot. It seems crazy to me, however, that he did not finish in the top three this season or last. All three finalists had strong seasons, but Carlson’s season was just as good and he was more heavily relied upon. He is one of the top offensive blueliners, but that’s not all he is.

Until he manages to overcome that reputation, which persists through no fault of his own, he will continue to be on the outside of the Norris race looking in. And that’s a shame considering how good he has been.

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