Let that settle in a bit, because the next three days are going to seem interminable. When the puck drops in Las Vegas on Thursday night, the Capitals will have a three-games-to-one lead over the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup finals. That will be in part because they demolished the Knights, 6-2, in Game 4 on Monday night at Capital One Arena, where the only thing more astonishing than the Capitals’ absolute undressing of Vegas was the scene in the packed streets outside.
What town do we live in again? Apparently, one in which thousands of fans without tickets jam the areas around the arena just so they can feel what it’s like, so they can hug, so they can be filled with joy and anticipation — not dread.
The reality of Monday night is this: It was simply an extension of this series — and these playoffs. The Capitals are better than the Golden Knights, just as they were better than Columbus and Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay. We now have four games of evidence in the finals, and while the fight’s not over — far from it — it’s a fair assessment. There was a weird Game 1 in which both teams looked shaky. And there have been three games since in which the cumulative score is Washington 12, Vegas 5.
And yet, was Monday’s version even best hockey?
“I think we have another level,” said forward Devante Smith-Pelly, one of six different Washington goal scorers.
Think about that, and believe it, because it’s true. The last month has so turned Washington’s sporting reality around that the District can rise, blink its eyes, come to terms with the three-games-to-one lead — and embrace it. Enjoy prosperity. Roll around in it.
Yes, we know this is a franchise that has blown five three-games-to-one leads in postseason past, and yes, that’s a staggering number.
“There’s been heartbreak here,” veteran T.J. Oshie said. “We know that.”
But gather round, folks, right here on the steps of the National Portrait Gallery. Wait, there’s no room here. Fine. Just hold your places and say it together: This Capitals team has nothing to do with those Capitals teams. Repeat it over the next three days if it makes you feel better.
What would actually cleanse any anxiety, though: re-watching Games 3 and 4, the two played here in front of packed houses that seem to be reevaluating how to handle their fandom in real time. These Capitals get bounces — notably, Knights forward James Neal, staring at an open goal, yet snapping the puck off the post in the first, Vegas’s second pipe of the period.
“I’ve been on the other side of that,” forward Brett Connolly said. “It’s deflating.”
Spoken by one man about one night. Felt by a fan base over 40 years.
Granted those breaks, these Capitals also take Oshie’s power-play goal to open the scoring, then add Tom Wilson’s goal to pad the lead, then just crush the Knights with Smith-Pelly’s tally in the waning moments of the first.
Remember that vibe that used to seep into Capital One Arena at times like these? Every lead felt tenuous. Every break seemed to go against the team in red.
Remember even the Capitals’ struggles on home ice to open the playoffs? They dropped the first two games to the Blue Jackets. They lost the opener to Pittsburgh. Goodness gracious, they frittered away Games 3 and 4 to Tampa.
Now, they have three straight victories here, and the only question is: Will they even need to return here to take the Cup?
So . . . how to spend the time before what will be the most anticipated Washington sports event since — when?
Let’s discuss who might be the candidates to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs.
Note: This is not a jinx. If you think it is, you haven’t been following these Capitals during this postseason. Which is what matters. Listen to Matt Niskanen, the wise defenseman, about how this team has absorbed the punches thrown its way since the postseason began: “We just keep playing.”
That’s not just window dressing. It’s a mantra. Remember when the Capitals used to outshoot and out-chance teams — and lose? Monday, Vegas outshot and out-chanced the Capitals — and lost.
“We just play,” Connolly said. “We’re not thinking too much. We’re just playing for each other. Everyone’s playing to their strengths. It’s been so much fun.”
This all means they could lose Thursday night in Las Vegas, and they would change — nothing. Not that they wouldn’t analyze such a performance. But unlike other Capitals teams I have been around — and that’s all of the playoff teams in the Alex Ovechkin era — this team knows what it is and how it has to play. It is methodical and calm. And it can be, at times, ruthless.
“We’re not going to feel sorry for them,” Nicklas Backstrom said.
I realize these are the same players who took two-goal leads in the postseason’s first two games against Columbus — and blew them. But it also must be acknowledged that since that time, they have barely wavered. In the old days — and by old days, I mean, say, 2017 — Oshie’s goal would have been followed by a stupid Washington penalty and a Vegas power-play goal, and all sorts of nerves.
Now, the Capitals seem to expect to deliver the next goal. Take that 3-0 lead after one period, and extend it to 4-0 — on John Carlson’s goal — after two.
Allow the Knights two in the third, and respond with Michal Kempny’s game-sealer.
That’s who this team has become. It’s not how the Capitals started the season. It’s not even how they started the playoffs. But it’s who they are now: the better team in the series.
Get comfortable with that notion and what it means. It’s heady stuff, to be sure. The Stanley Cup is seized with 16 victories. The Capitals have 15 of them. It’s not over.
But those chants in the final three minutes of Monday night — “We want the Cup! We want the Cup!” — they rang throughout the building, and dang if they didn’t ring true.
Have confidence this is the group that can deliver on that sentiment. This is uncharted territory, and these are crazy new times. Don’t waste away the hours by being worried, because the teams that created all that old anxiety are gone, and a new one is stepping into their place.