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