Caps on verge of ending long Stanley Cup drought; Vegas coach says pressure is off

APTOPIX Stanley Cup Golden Knights Capitals Hockey
Capitals players celebrate during game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals.

Three straight workmanlike wins have pushed the Washington Capitals within one victory of capturing the first Stanley Cup in the franchise’s 43-season history.

“I think everybody knows,” Capitals right winger Devante Smith-Pelly said after Washington’s 6-2 victory Monday put Vegas on the brink of elimination, “that the last win is the hardest to get.”

It won’t be difficult if Vegas’ defense continues to give goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury little support.

“There’s too many guys staring at the puck carrier, and we’re leaving the back side open too much,” said Vegas coach Gerard Gallant, whose team faces a three-games-to-one deficit in the Finals. “…And they made some real good passes.”

Fleury covered up for his team’s defense gaffes in the first three series, but he has struggled in the Finals and his defense has continually blown coverage in front of the net, contributing to easy scores.

“Five of the six goals were wide-open nets,” Gallant said about Monday’s loss.

The 33-year-old Fleury had a 1.68 goals-against average and a .947 save percentage in the first three rounds, but those numbers have dipped to 4.05 (GAA) and .845 (save percentage) in the Finals.

“It’s a team game,” Fleury said. “Everybody’s trying hard out there, trying to help me out. We’ll find a way to make it work.”

Washington, which got four assists from center Evgeny Kuzentsov in Game 4, can wrap up the title Thursday at T-Mobile Arena in Vegas.

“Nobody’s quitting,” said Fleury, who allowed six goals on 23 shots Monday at electric, red-clad Capital One Arena. “We’re going home, and we’ve had some success there. We just have to focus on one period at a time, you know?”

They also need to focus on staying out of the penalty box. Washington’s power play was 3 for 5 in Game 4.

“We’re OK if they want to take penalties,” Caps coach Barry Trotz cracked.

Washington’s power play is 4 for 12 in the series, and 21 for 71 (29.6 percent) in the post-season – the third-highest rate in NHL history among playoff teams who have played at least 15 games. The record: 31.8 percent by the 1981 New York Islanders.

Vegas center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, a former Flyer, called his team’s penalty-killing performance Monday “unacceptable. We the killers have to be better. Simple as that.”

With two days between games, the Capitals will have lots of time to think about a potential clincher Thursday. Before this year, the Caps hadn’t been past the second round since 1998, which was their only other Finals appearance. Washington lost in four straight to Detroit that year.

“There’s been heartbreak here; we know that,” Caps right winger T.J. Oshie said. “But I think that’s scarred over and has made us a little stronger for it.”

Oshie, who had a goal and two assists Monday, said the Capitals will “keep pressing on, keep working and try to do something pretty cool here.”

Teams with a 3-1 series lead have won 32 of the 33 Finals. The exception: Toronto in 1942.

“The pressure is off us now,” said Gallant, whose team did not lose four straight all season. “We’re going to go out and play and work hard and go have some fun.”

Trotz believes the Golden Knights will swarm the net early in the game Thursday, much like they did when they hit the post twice in the first 4 minutes, 29 seconds Monday.

“They’re a quick-start team. We have to be ready for that,” Trotz said. “And if we’re ready for that and we’re able to win the first period, you worry about the next shift, the next shift, the next shift. So it’s a shift-to-shift mentality. This group is pretty grounded.”

In Trotz’s first season with Washington, the Caps blew a 3-1 series lead in 2015 against the Rangers and lost in seven games.

“I don’t think we were mentally in the place we are now,” Trotz said. “We’re a totally different team….It’s not even a factor for me.”

Breakaways

Vegas defenseman Shea Theodore was minus-3 in Game 4…..Bellemare’s plus-4 rating in the Finals is tied for the team lead. Luca Sbisa, another former Flyer, is the only Vegas defenseman with a “plus” rating (plus-1) in the Finals….The Capitals have blocked a total of 50 shots over the last two games. Caps defenseman Brooks Orpik had six blocks and six hits Monday….The Knights’ top line — William Karlsson centering Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith — has combined for just eight points in the Finals…..Including the playoffs, Vegas is 36-12-2 at home this season.