Capitals move within two games of Stanley Cup with 3-1 win over Golden Knights

Stanley Cup Golden Knights Capitals Hockey
Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin, of Russia, celebrates his goal against the Vegas Golden Knights during the second period in Game 3 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Final, Saturday, June 2, 2018, in Washington.

WASHINGTON — For most of Alex Ovechkin’s Hall of Fame career, the failure of the Washington Capitals to convert regular-season dominance into postseason success has somehow traced back to him. He wasn’t a two-way player, wasn’t clutch the way Sidney Crosby was clutch, didn’t lead the way the Kid did either, and so on.

Well, Ovechkin is a couple of wins away from a complete rewrite of that narrative after Washington’s 3-1 victory over the Las Vegas Knights in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals at the Capitol One Arena on Saturday night.

And it’s only partly due to yet another clutch goal scored, this one to break through in a scoreless game, or the eight shots he directed toward the net, five of which found it. It’s the effort he’s making on the other end, the endless linebacker-like physicality he consistently delivers against the smaller Knights. It’s also the very apparent leadership that has emboldened a team that most believed had taken a step back after key free-agent losses last summer, and the loss of promising young defenseman Nate Schmidt to the Golden Knights through the expansion draft.

“The last couple games he’s set the tone,” said Washington coach Barry Trotz. “As a coach you want your top players to set the tone and he did… Intensity, physicality, obviously he scored the first goal — he did all the details. He blocked shots, he got pucks out…

“He scores at a massive rate. You add all those other little things to his game, the whole team is going to follow that.”

“It doesn’t matter what you do out there, you just have to do your best,” said Ovechkin, whose been endlessly emotional throughout this run as well. “If you block the shot, or make a hit, you’re going to give energy to your teammates. Vegas is doing the same. It’s just a huge effort by everybody.

“It’s the Stanley Cup Final.”

Down two games to one, Las Vegas will look to rebound in Game 4 here Monday night before the series switches back to Las Vegas for Game 5 on Thursday.  The team that has won Game 3 when a series has been tied in the Stanley Cup Finals has gone on to win 77.8 percent of the time. But in the last three instances —  Tampa Bay in 2004 and Chicago in both 2013 and 2015 – the loser of this game has hoisted the Cup..

The first period was played as if both teams were keenly aware of that. After a pair of wild, end-to-end affairs in Las Vegas, the teams combined for just 12 shots in the first 20 minutes – despite a power play for each. The best opportunities belonged to the Caps, as Vegas goalie Marc-Andre  Fleury just got a piece of Ovechkin’s wrist shot 68 seconds into the game, and Chandler Stephenson’s apparent goal at 5 minutes, 4 seconds was disallowed because Smith-Pelly collided with Fleury at the cusp of his crease.

Ovechkin had another golden opportunity to start the second period, and this time he didn’t miss, flipping John Carlson’s rebound past Fleury to give Washington a 1-0 lead at the 1:10 mark of the second period — and the first home goal scored in the Stanley Cup Finals in the organization’s 40-year history.

“I thought that was poetic justice if you will,” Trotz said. “For all the tough times he’s endured.”

Evgeny Kuznetsov, a game-time decision after his left arm was bent grotesquely by a check in Game 2, had the other assist. He also pushed that lead to 2-0 at 12:50 of the second, firing a wrist shot past Fleury to finish off a three-on-one rush that was triggered by T.J. Oshie’s blocked shot on the other end.

That kind of effort marked Washington’s first 40 minutes, as the Golden Knights mustered just 13 shots on net. But after Oshie rang the post early in the third during a power play, Caps goaltender Braden Holtby made things interesting by inexplicably playing a puck away from ex-Flyer Pierre-Eduoard Bellemare behind the net  — and into the middle of the ice. Tomas Nosek fired it into the empty net, and Washington’s lead was back down to a single mistake.

The Knights had  their most sustained pressure after that, but another mistake — this by Vegas defenseman Shea Theodore — triggered a bang-bang third goal for Washington, Smith-Pelly wristing it past Fleury with just over six minutes left.

And dooming any thoughts of a comeback.