WASHINGTON — Marc-Andre Fleury, brilliant in the first three playoff series, has struggled in the Finals, and Washington fans repeatedly mocked the happy-go-lucky Vegas goaltender late in the first period Monday.
“Fleur-eee…Fleur-eee….Fleur-eee,” they chanted in a gleeful manner.
The Capitals, despite being outplayed during most of the first 16 minutes, built a 3-0 lead on 11 first-period shots and never looked back. They defeated the first-year Golden Knights, 6-2, at an ear-splitting Capital One Arena.
“We knew they were going to make a push, and we weathered it,” said Devante Smith-Pelly, who made it 3-0 late in the opening period.
Washington, a team that came dangerously to losing the first three games of its opening-round series against Columbus, has a three-games-to-one lead and can capture its first Stanley Cup championship with a win Thursday in Vegas.
Braden Holtby made 28 saves — he has badly outplayed Fleury in the series — T.J. Oshie collected three points, and Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has become a strong Conn Smythe Trophy candidate as the best player in the playoffs, had four assists to pace the Caps.
Trailing 4-0, Vegas got third-period goals from James Neal and Reilly Smith to get within 4-2 with 7 minutes, 34 seconds left. But defenseman Michal Kempny iced the win by scoring from the right circle with 6:21 to go. Brett Connolly later added the Caps’ third power-play goal of the night.
First-period goals by Oshie (power-play rebound) Tom Wilson, and Smith-Pelly stunned the Knights, who, unlike in Game 3, swarmed the net from the start and had five shots and hit two posts in the first six minutes.
While on an early power play and the game scoreless, Neal had a wide open net, but he pushed the shot off the far post, and Holtby made a scrambling clear before anyone could pounce on the rebound.
“When a guy misses an empty net or your goalie makes a great save, it gives you positive emotions,” said Kuznetsov, who has a league-high 31 playoff points in 23 games this year. “It was a little bit of a wake-up call.”
Neal will have all summer to think about what would have happened if he had not missed what looked like an easy goal and given Vegas an early lead.
Vegas had a 14-3 domination in shot attempts before Washington got a power play with 10:38 left in the first. It took the Capitals just 32 seconds to convert, taking a 1-0 lead as Oshie (three points) followed Kuznetsov’s shot and put a rebound past Fleury. (Side note: Oshie, who signed a $46 million, eight-year deal last summer, took the Metro to the game and apparently was 35 cents short on his Metro card. But a rapid-transit staffer allowed him to get aboard.)
With 3:34 left in the first, Wilson took a pass from Kuznetsov and put a slot shot under Fleury’s glove to make it 2-0. Smith-Pelly increased the lead to 3-0 with 20.5 seconds to go in the stanza, controlling a pass with his left skate and lifting a point-blank shot over Fleury.
Vegas, which has lost three straight, faced a 3-0 deficit despite a 25-14 advantage in first-period shot attempts. For the game, Vegas outshot the Caps, 30-23, and had a 71-41 domination in shot attempts.
“We played a lot of the game the way we wanted to play it,” Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said, disregarding shoddy play by his defense.
The Caps made it 4-0 as defenseman John Carlson scored a power-play goal, a one-timer from the left circle after taking a feed from Kuznetsov, with 4:37 left in the second.
More Fleury chants followed. Naturally.
In an effort to jump-start his team’s stagnant attack, Vegas coach Gerard Gallant promoted right winger Alex Tuch to the second line and added left winger Tomas Tatar to the lineup. David Perron, who had just an assist and a minus-two rating over the first three games of the Final, was a healthy scratch.
The Golden Knights are trying to become the first NHL, MLB, NBA, or NFL team to win the overall championship in its inaugural season – excluding the first year of a league’s existence – since the 1950 Cleveland Browns captured the NFL title. The NBA’s Minneapolis Lakers (1948-49) and Baltimore Bullets (1947-48) also won the title in their respective first seasons.
The Knights are now a long shot. Since 1939, only one of 33 teams (Toronto in 1942) has won the Cup after losing three of the first four games in the Finals.
Smith-Pelly had just seven regular-season goals and now has six in the playoffs. … On the power play, Washington was 3 for 5, Vegas was 0 for 4….Brooks Orpik, who had a game-high six hits, had six of the Caps’ 24 blocked shots. Vegas blocked eight shots. … Alex Ovechkin has 33 goals in 56 career games (regular season and playoffs) against Fleury, his second-highest total against any NHL goalie. Ovechkin has 35 goals in 71 games against the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist.