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 one win away from 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 back in Las Vegas.
“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 Carlson, Michal 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 more 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.
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.
“It’s frustrating and demoralizing,” Fleury said of the loss.
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.
“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. Now they go back on the road with a chance to finish off this improbable run.
“Close but everyone here knows the fourth game is the toughest trying to close a team out,” Smith-Pelly said. “Until that buzzer goes, try not to think about it too much.”