- The Washington Times - Monday, June 4, 2018

Was that the last home game the Washington Capitals will play this season?

That question could have taken on a more dubious sentiment at earlier points of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The team has fallen behind in every series they’ve played — it often felt like another early exit was on the horizon when the Blue Jackets, the Penguins and the Lightning were in town.

Instead, when the Capitals hit the ice at Capital One Arena on Monday night, they ensured their most important two-game homestand of the year was also their most dominant. Their 6-2 win over the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 4 means that the Capitals are just one win away from lifting the Stanley Cup.

Six different players scored and Evgeny Kuznetsov made four assists to extend his postseason leading total to 31 points. Braden Holtby finished with 28 saves.

The Capitals leapt out to a 3-0 lead in the first period and never looked back. Three of the Capitals’ goals came on power plays after their unit went a combined 1-for-7 in Games 2 and 3.

The Golden Knights, playing in desperation mode, were tortured by four shots off the goalpost and other miscues.

“I thought we worked for our breaks tonight. They came out hard,” Holtby said. “In saying that, there’s some areas we can look at over the next couple days and touch on and improve because they’re gonna keep pushing forward. We want to do everything in our power that we don’t need breaks to win.”

Players did their best after the game to avoid thinking about what lay ahead after one final win.

“It’s easy to let your mind wander,” John Carlson said. “It’s been one of our strengths to make sure that we’re in the right place mentally. I think everyone knows the stakes. There’s nothing, no opportunity that’s going to pass by that we’re not going to give it all we’ve got.”

“I just want to get rest and get home,” Kuznetsov said more succinctly. “You know me. I never think 72 hours in front of me.”

And although Capitals teams of years past have lost their grips on 2-0 or 3-1 series leads in the playoffs, the current team was not concerned about rectifying that history — or following in their steps.

“We realize and we appreciate the guys that were here before us and the groundwork that they’ve laid for us. But we’re trying to write our own story here,” T.J. Oshie said. “It seems like the rest of the city is on board with that. We’re gonna go about our business. We haven’t dwelled much on the past.”

The Capitals entered Game 4 just 5-5 at home this postseason, compared with 9-3 away, but they put on a show for a Washington crowd that was more hyped up than ever.

“In this playoff we’re not very good at home, but in this series we keep the crowd happy,” Kuznetsov said. “That’s big thing for us.”

Four minutes into the game, the Capitals had to kill off the first penalty when John Carlson tripped Erik Haula. During Vegas’ power play, Braden Holtby dove left to defend a possible shot from Haula, but Haula passed to James Neal.

Neal then missed a short-range shot on a completely wide-open net — the puck bounced off the post and Holtby’s stick got a piece of it as it left the danger zone.

Special teams were also responsible for Washington’s first goal, 10 minutes in. Vegas defenseman Colin Miller was called for tripping. On the power play, Marc-Andre Fleury got a piece of a Kuznetsov shot, but the rebound hit Oshie’s skate near the slot, and he controlled it and flipped it past Fleury.

On a faceoff in the Capitals’ offensive zone, the puck got lost under Vegas defenseman Deryk Engelland’s skate and Tom Wilson collected it. He passed to Kuznetsov at the boards and skated to the slot to receive it back and feed the one-timer into the net at 16:26.

Devante Smith-Pelly tacked on his goal in the last 30 seconds of the period. He caught the puck to keep it in the O zone and pushed it toward Alex Ovechkin, who completed a cross-ice pass to Matt Niskanen. The blueliner sent in a pass left of the net, to where Smith-Pelly had skated, and Smith-Pelly flipped the puck in.

The Capitals killed off two more penalties in the first 12 minutes of the second, and the Golden Knights at times looked hapless when Washington cleared a puck or blocked a shot. Vegas was unlucky, too: On the Knights’ best scoring opportunities, they missed their shots wide or off the post.

At 15:23, 40 seconds after Neal was assessed a slashing penalty, Kuznetsov passed to Carlson wide-open in the left circle for a slapshot power-play goal.

Neal finally got Vegas on the board 5:43 into the third period when Kuznetsov was in the box for tripping. Haula passed to Neal on Holtby’s left, and Neal avoided the goalie’s glove by scoring on a top-shelf wrist shot.

Reilly Smith snuck a goal through Holtby’s armpit at 12:26, but that was the last positive blip on the radar for Vegas.

Michal Kempny responded one minute later with a 4-on-4 goal. Oshie carried the puck into the Capitals’ zone and as he took a hit, he dropped it back for Nicklas Backstrom. Backstrom hit Kempny for a one-timer from the right circle.

The final three minutes saw Oshie, Engelland and Ryan Reaves receive game misconducts. It was unclear why Oshie was sent off with Engelland after the Vegas defenseman checked him into the boards. Reaves earned his later by picking a fight with Smith-Pelly.

Brett Connolly finalized the score with Washington’s sixth goal on a 5-on-3 that followed Engelland’s misconduct.

The Golden Knights outshot and outhit the Capitals for most of the game and were competitive in the faceoff circle, but they played from behind and ran into a bad luck streak.

Vegas coach Gerard Gallant felt his team played its best game of the series so far.

“I was disappointed we were down 3-0. Our players were disappointed,” Gallant said. “The message was, let’s play the same way and let’s see what happens. … Obviously a couple of plays in the D zone where they made some unbelievable passes. The Smith-Pelly goal was a great play by him. So you have to give them credit, too.”

Kuznetsov said he enjoys recording four assists more than scoring a goal himself.

“For sure. I can shoot a couple times, but I saw a couple guys were open,” he said. “I really feel that keeps the goalie a little bit in a tough situation when guy in a good position but he still looking for the pass.”

If the Capitals win the Stanley Cup, they would be the second team in NHL history to do so despite trailing at some point in all four playoff series.

One good omen the Capitals have on their side are Kuznetsov and Ovechkin, who each have 12 or more goals this postseason. In the last 20 seasons, the three teams to have two 12-goal scorers in the Stanley Cup Playoffs — the 2004 Lightning, 2008 Red Wings and 2009 Penguins — all won the Cup.

The Capitals will try to close out the series and hoist the Stanley Cup in Las Vegas, which hosts Game 5 Thursday at 8 p.m. Eastern time.

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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