- - Sunday, June 3, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Joe Gibbs, the god of Washington championships, the three-time Redskins Super Bowl champion coach — that Joe Gibbs — was in the house at the Capital One Arena Saturday night. So was Wonder Woman.

How could the Capitals lose?

Turns out they didn’t need the blessing of Gibbs or the power of Lynda Carter. They had Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Braden Holtby.

That trio has led Washington throughout this postseason, and, in the first Stanley Cup game in Washington since 1998, the trifecta of Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Holtby paid off with a 3-1 Game 3 win over the Vegas Golden Knights.

The Capitals on Saturday reclaimed the spotlight with a 2-1 lead in this best-of-seven after the Golden Knights split the first two contests in celebrity-packed Las Vegas. The Knights, with their elaborate pre-game Dungeons and Dragons show in Game 1 and Game 2, opened the series with all the mirrors, lights, pounding music and all the glitz and glamour you would expect from Sin City.

The stars were a little more retro in Washington — Sting with the pre-game concert outside, and Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak and 70s TV icon Lynda Carter inside. But the Capitals kept the focus Saturday on the hockey, not the festivities. 

This franchise, after all, has had more than enough experience thinking up reasons to throw a party. Regular season awards by the bushel. Promotional events. A long and ever-growing list of career milestones for Ovechkin.

What they haven’t had to celebrate is the Stanley Cup.

Their only concession in the battle with Vegas showmanship was to counter Michael Buffer, who did the pre-game player introductions in Nevada, with longtime Capitals fan Sajak. After all, if there was ever a sport whose players needed vowels, it is hockey.

The whole alphabet was working for Washington Saturday night. Ovechkin with the first goal of the game, scoring a close one early in the second period on a rebound following a chaotic scene where Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was out of position, flat on the ice, and could not recover in time to stop Ovechkin’s short dart into the net after repeated tries — the kind of goal that wins playoff hockey — to take a 1-0 lead.

Then Kuznetsov — who had to leave the ice early in Game 2 in Vegas following a big hit by Brayden McNabb, and whose playing status was up in the air before he took the ice for the Capitals morning skate Saturday — delivered the second goal, which proved to be the game-winner, at 12:50 of the second period on a breakaway shot that seemed to toy with Fleury, who had been under fire all night by the Ovechkin-Kuznetsov line.

Devante Smith-Pelly — who cost the Capitals a goal early in the first period when Chandler Stephenson’s apparent score was called back for goalie interference by Smith-Pelly – delivered the final blow with a third-period goal.

Holtby? He didn’t have the tough night that Fleury faced, with 26 Washington shots on goal, compared to 22 for Vegas. Many of the shots Holtby faced came with the Golden Knights down.

But Holtby stood tall when his teammates needed him, and on one sequence of shots in front of the Washington net early in the second, he made several stops that brought the frenzied Capitals crowd to its feet, chanting “Holtby, Holtby!”

Wait a minute, Loverro. What is this? I know everyone has a short attention span, but do you really think that people are going to forget that you were the guy who wrote after Washington scored four goals and lost in Game 1 in Vegas that the series was over? That Washington had blown their opportunity to win a Stanley Cup by scoring that many goals in their opponent’s house against a great goaltender like Fleury and not come away with a win?

Weren’t you that guy?

Consider it my J.R. Smith moment.

“That first game, there were some strange things,” Holtby said.

Yes. I know. I wrote them.

“Game 1, everyone was out of their mind,” coach Barry Trotz said.

There you go. My lawyer pleads temporary insanity.

Whatever Vegas had going into the finals — a playoff run that saw them plow through Los Angeles, San Jose and Winnipeg, with a 12-3 playoff mark that put them as the favorites going into this series — they’ve lost.

And credit the Capitals for taking that aggressive Golden Knights onslaught away with composed, solid defense, forcing Vegas into turnovers and putting them back on their skates.

Now, with a 2-1 lead in the series, with Game 4 Monday at the Capital One Arena, the Capitals seem to hold the winning hand — both mentally and mathematically (the Game 3 winner wins the Stanley Cup 78 percent of the time in a seven-game series, according to NHL stats).

They have played like a veteran team that has seemed to grow stronger as the playoffs have gone on.

Is the series over? Don’t ask me. Heck, I’m lucky if I know what the score is.

Thom Loverro’s weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” is available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.


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