Matt Niskanen and T.J. Oshie had feared that traffic congestion might delay their arrival to one of the biggest games in Washington hockey history Saturday, so both put on gray suits, grabbed their black backpacks and hoofed it to a Metro station in Northern Virginia.
Just hours before the two Capitals played crucial roles in the team’s 3-1 win over Vegas in Game 3 of the franchise’s first Stanley Cup finals appearance in 20 years, they mingled with thousands of people descending on Capital One Arena. They squished into rail cars, laughed along with giddy red-clad fans and took selfies before arriving at their Gallery Place stop.
“It was actually very easy for us to get down there. The fans seemed very excited but were also very respectful. They kind of just wished us luck along the way. The closer we got, the more fans got on, and it was cool. It was cool to see,” Oshie said. “Someone was doing some type of simulated Caps march, and we walked right behind the march. So we might be in some type of pump-up video or something.”
It added an endearing layer to an emotional night as the Capitals and their fans celebrated the franchise’s first Stanley Cup finals win at home. While Niskanen had taken the Metro to games several times, Oshie had never done it before Saturday. They hadn’t decided whether they would do it again Monday night for Game 4.
“We thought it might be tough to get to the game. Some of the guys said it was actually the fastest that they had ever gotten there,” Oshie said. “We decided to take the train. Just if there was going to be the traffic, to make it easier on us.”
Defense has stepped up
Oshie came up with a crucial block that led to Evgeny Kuznetsov’s second-period goal to give Washington a two-goal cushion, and that play was emblematic of how the Capitals again stifled Vegas’s up-tempo, fast-striking offense. Washington blocked 26 shots — 15 came in the first period, and 13 players finished with at least one block — and it swarmed a Golden Knights offense that put just 22 shots on goal.
The Vegas attack, which looked so dangerous in a 6-4 win in Game 1, has suddenly disappeared. Washington has applied pressure at every turn, including in front of the net, where for a second consecutive game it used a physical style to keep traffic out of the sightlines of goaltender Braden Holtby.
“I think there’s more to blocking shots than just going out there and trying to get hit,” Holtby said. “We’re doing a great job of creating the right layers, guys going out there strategically to know which lane I’m picking for sightlines, and they’re taking away the other half and making big blocks and that’s a huge part of why we’re having success defensively because it’s all through our lineup.”
Game 1 was a “strange game,” as Holtby described it again Saturday night, but now it feels like Washington has the upper hand in the series because of its commitment to defense.
That part of the Capitals’ game has been improving over the past few months, ever since the team held a meeting in March to hammer out issues with its defensive-zone structure and lay down new protocols. But the past two games also have revealed just how desperate the Capitals are playing defense up and down the roster. That includes captain Alex Ovechkin, who made a memorable clear from his knees in Game 2 and recorded several blocks in Game 3. Those types of contributions have helped suppress Vegas’s top two lines in particular.
“I think we try to do a good job on everyone, and they’re real deep. All four of their lines kind of get a lot of play — more than most other teams, I would say,” defenseman John Carlson said. “They’ve had their moments and we know they’re going to get chances and goals, but the more we can keep them off the scoreboard and frustrate them as much as possible, that’s obviously our goal going into every game.”