The play will be remembered as a goal because that is what it was, an off-balance score for Alex Ovechkin that put the Washington Capitals ahead in a Game 3 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday night.
But the 10 seconds leading into it — filled with flying shots and flying bodies and one flying goaltender — also painted these Stanley Cup finals in broad strokes. That flying goaltender was Marc-Andre Fleury. Ovechkin’s goal was preceded by four attacks of Fleury’s net, a deflection Fleury dove to save, an attempt off his left post, a wrist shot he knocked down with his chest and a rebound he blocked with his pads.
He did everything the Golden Knights could have asked for during the frenetic sequence. And still it wasn’t enough as the Capitals grabbed a 2-1 series lead ahead of Game 4 at Capital One Arena on Monday night.
“We can be harder around the net there,” Golden Knights forward David Perron said Sunday. “It’s just a scramble play where they outcompeted us on that one.”
If the five Golden Knights skaters were outcompeted during this scramble, Fleury wasn’t. It doesn’t matter that the play ended with a puck in the back of his net. The Golden Knights’ 3-1 loss Saturday would have been decided far sooner if not for Fleury, whose acrobatic stops and swinging glove gave them a puncher’s chance when they hardly deserved one.
Fleury came into the series as the best goaltender in the Stanley Cup playoffs, sporting a 12-3 record, .947 save percentage and 1.68 goals against average. Now he and the Golden Knights have lost back-to-back games for the first time this postseason, which is not Fleury’s fault but that of a spotty defense and an offense that has struggled to gain a foothold in the Capitals’ zone. The Golden Knights’ inability to possess the puck and dictate play with their five-man forecheck has largely left Fleury on and island, where Ovechkin, center Evgeny Kuznetsov and the rest of the Capitals’ playmakers have made charge after charge at his crease.
The last time Fleury had to win a playoff contest in Washington was Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals a year ago. Fleury, then in net for the Pittsburgh Penguins, responded with a shutout that ended the Capitals’ season and got his team closer to its second straight title. And though Game 4 is not an elimination game, it could be argued that the stakes are just as high.
“Um, I think a little bit, maybe a little more shots, more zone time,” Fleury said after Game 3 when asked whether he faced more pressure than earlier in the series. “That was expected coming into this building.”
Golden Knights defenseman Shea Theodore had a rough go in Games 2 and 3, being on the ice for four of the Capitals’ six goals across the two contests. He also had a direct hand in two of the Capitals’ three goals Saturday: first making a poor decision that sprung the odd-man rush that Evgeny Kuznetsov scored on in the second, then committing a turnover that led to Devante Smith-Pelly’s game-sealing goal in the third.
Golden Knights Coach Gerard Gallant, who is known for his calm demeanor, was a bit combative Sunday in defending Theodore to reporters.
“Did Shea do something really bad? He plays the game like everybody else. He made a couple mistakes, ended up in the back of our net,” Gallant said. “A lot of guys make mistakes in a hockey game [and] they don’t end up in the back of the net. Shea’s a 22-year-old kid who I love. He’s a great player. He’s going to be a star in this league.”
First, Theodore has to bounce back from his poor performances on Monday. The Golden Knights have struggled to generate even-strength offense in the last two games, and Theodore’s skill and vision can help them snap out of the funk. His pinpoint, cross-zone pass to Tomas Nosek led to the game-winning goal in Game 1 and was an indication of his potential and ability to create scoring opportunities for teammates.
The Golden Knights will need every bit of that moving forward.
“He’s been great for us all year. He’s young, he’s going to have mistakes, and today’s a good day,” Golden Knights veteran defenseman Deryk Engelland said Sunday. “I talked to him last night. It’s a new day, we’ve got to get ready for Game 4, and you’ve just got to tell him to make it simple. It’s how he’s played all year for us.”
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