Stars can become team players, too. Those who are the most talented can decide to do the dirty work of playoff hockey. By an act of will, they can deal out hits, absorb the pain of blocked shots and hustle until their lungs are aflame.
Team players, who’ve always valued the mundane, can’t suddenly decide to become elite-skill stars just because they are in the Stanley Cup finals.
When the Stanley Cup is lifted by someone, not saying who, that extra star power might be the gap between the Capitals and the Golden Knights. Washington has had great gifts for a decade but never, until now, gone all in on being a team; Vegas, an expansion club, is showing the limits of its humble hockey roots.
On Monday night in Game 4, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, John Carlson and Alex Ovechkin combined for 12 points. In these entire finals, the top five regular season scorers for Vegas only have 11 points combined.
That’s not a short-series fluke. If you look at the entire postseason, the Capitals’ top five regular season scorers have swamped the top five Knights in total points 119 to 72. Extend that to the top seven scorers and it’s a stunning 150 to 89.
Asked about the importance of stars shining their brightest in the postseason, particularly Ovechkin and Kuznetsov — Ovechkin is tied for the most goals in these Stanley Cup playoffs with 14, and Kuznetsov is third with 12, and Kuznetsov’s 31 points rank first, with Ovechkin’s 26 second — Coach Barry Trotz said dryly, “They’re pretty good.”
“Any offense in this league, your stars lead the way,” added Trotz, whose Capitals have roasted their old nemesis goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury, for 16 goals in four games. “Ovechkin has been great. People don’t know Kuznetsov as well. You’re seeing it now. Every year, he’s been better and better. He’s taken a larger part of this team each year.”
Because the Capitals lost so much talent from last year’s choke-of-all-chokes team, it’s easy to forget that compared with many NHL teams, especially the Knights, they’re still totally loaded.
The Golden Knight function brilliantly when they are a fierce-checking, well-disciplined team. That Vegas focuses on making the whole better than the sum of its parts disguises how little firepower the NHL allowed the Knights to have in their inaugural season. Maybe they received more than any other expansion team ever has, but consider: They were forbidden from taking anybody close to a star.
Every NHL team could protect either seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie, or eight skaters and one goalie. Translation: Basically, every top-six forward was off the board as well as every top-pair defenseman and every starting goalie.
Knights General Manager George McPhee unearthed surprise standouts such as William Karlsson (43 regular season goals), who had never scored 10 in a season before, Erik Haula (29) who had his first 20-goal season, and Alex Tuch, who had 37 points as a rookie. James Neal (25 goals) and Jonathan Marchessault (27) had already had 30-goal seasons.
But that’s about it. Every other Knight, except Fleury, had spent his career as a “depth” player.
All these compliments about talent, and the Capitals will be swamped with them as these Stanley Cup finals continue, are exactly the kind of flattery and distraction that have sunk this franchise — though not this team — so often. The only way you blow a two-game lead in 10 postseason series is to be complacent or overconfident.
The Capitals should be forewarned that, while they are perhaps better than Vegas, they have also been — the rarest word ever seen in a Caps story — lucky.
Quite lucky. If a team hits a post once, or maybe twice, in a game, that’s normal. But more than that is when you start thanking the “hockey gods,” as Trotz calls them, for taking care of you. In their first series, against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Capitals lost Games 1 and 2 at home, then went to two overtimes in Game 3. Before Washington won, Columbus hit the pipe behind goalie Braden Holtby four times, including once in the third period and once in overtime. If the Blue Jackets had gone up by three games, it’s probably, “Good night, Caps.”
The Knights hit three posts in a game twice, including Monday’s Game 4. My best guess is a puck-luck neutral series would be tied now and everyone’s view of everything would be quite different. Of course, the Capitals are owed 35 years of backdated luck.
Washington might face another issue. In one game, shots on goal often mean little. For a best-of-seven series, more. The Caps outshot their first three playoff foes 625-513 and outscored them 66-47. In this series, Vegas has shot more, 125-103, with fewer goals, 16-11.
“They missed a couple of chances early. Then we buried ours,” Carlson said of the Golden Knights after Monday night’s win. “They are not going to stop. Take a deep breath. Just see what happens because this is a lot of fun.”
For a third of a century, Capitals coaches have been preaching to bear down and close out a foe that trails Washington 2-0 or 3-1 in games. Get this over quick. Don’t let the momentum switch. Don’t let them back in it.
How’s that been working out so far?
Such attempts at playoff clairvoyance, and, in this case, Grab the Cup Quick urgency, can be brutally counterproductive. And the Caps aren’t falling for it.
“The next couple of days are going to be crazy with distractions,” Capitals forward Tom Wilson said. “But we have to stay with our approach — short future, shift by shift.”
Trotz has a tough 72-hour job of tone-setting for a team one win from a trophy that no one on the Capitals ever seems to mention by name, often preferring “it” or any circumlocution, including “something special.” But avoidance is hard when every NHL interview session is done in front of scrim with 27 photos of Cups.
“We’d like to get this done,” Trotz said vaguely. “Washington is a very passionate city about sports [but] needs to get rid of some demons.”
Then Trotz got back on message, a fine idea. “The last win of any series is always the hardest,” he said, because your foe is desperate. So, given that truism, how do you balance the fact that you only need to win Game 5, 6 or 7 against the reality that losing any playoff game can start awakening “Bad Things.”
“Man for man, even though we’ve played 105 games, they want to keep playing. They’re having lots of fun,” Trotz said. “They’re having a blast.”
Instead of watching these Capitals with all our old baggage impairing our view, just imagine that the current Capitals don’t fear these moments, whether that means one, two or three more games — although, if it’s all the same to them, maybe not three. If you watch this team while thinking, “They’re loving this,” you’ll realize that, at long last and hard as it is to trust, they finally are.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.
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