WASHINGTON — After playing exactly 3,700 games in their 43-year history, the Washington Capitals can almost taste the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
T.J. Oshie, Tom Wilson and Devante Smith-Pelly scored in the final 10 minutes of Monday’s opening period on the heels of an early Golden Knights’ push that saw the visitors hit two posts as Washington defeated Vegas 6-2 to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven final.
John Carlson, Michal Kempny and Brett Connolly had the other goals for the Capitals. Braden Holtby made 28 saves for Washington, which can wrap up the series in Sin City on Thursday.
“(We’re) close, but everyone here knows the fourth win is always the toughest,” Smith-Pelly said. “Until that buzzer goes, trying not to think about it too much.”
Evgeny Kuznetsov, the NHL’s leading scorer in the playoffs with 31 points, put up just the fourth four-assist night in Cup history. Nicklas Backstrom added three assists of his own, while Oshie chipped in with two.
James Neal and Reilly Smith replied for Vegas, which got 17 stops from Marc-Andre Fleury. The expansion Knights won Game 1, but have now lost three straight for the first time since late November and early December.
The only team in NHL history to come back from a 3-1 deficit in a final to hoist the Cup was the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, who won four straight after losing the first three games against the Detroit Red Wings.
Game 6, if necessary, would be back in Washington on Sunday night.
Vegas now sits on the brink of elimination despite directing 71 shots towards goal compared to Washington’s 41.
“You work for everything you get,” Neal said. “We were doing the right things.”
After the Capitals, who were swept by Detroit in their only other Cup appearance 20 years ago, weathered that Vegas surge thanks to some good luck, along with poor execution from the visitors, Oshie made it 1-0 at 9:54 of the first on the power play.
Fleury stopped Kuznetsov’s initial shot, but the puck spilled to Oshie, who kicked it up to his stick at the lip of the crease before burying his eighth goal of the post-season.
Wilson made it 2-0 with 3:34 left in the period when he intercepted a pass by Vegas defenceman Deryk Engelland after an offensive zone draw and worked a slick give-and-go with Kuznetsov to beat Fleury for his fifth.
“(Kuznetsov) just tells me to put my stick on the ice and he’ll hit it,” Wilson said. “It’s a privilege to play with him. He’s one of the best at his craft.”
Smith-Pelly then stretched the lead to three with 20.5 seconds left on the clock, like Oshie kicking the puck to his stick before roofing his sixth off a hard feed from Alex Ovechkin, who had hit the post earlier in the period with the teams scoreless.
Prior to the Washington onslaught, Vegas easily could have scored three times, but instead rolled snake eyes at the worst moment imaginable.
Erik Haula had the puck go off his skate and hit the post just over a minute in, Smith flubbed a shot at a wide-open net, and Neal also found iron on the most egregious miss of all with Holtby down and out on a power play before the Capitals exploded.
“We obviously got some breaks at the start of the game,” Holtby said. “To be honest, I thought (the Neal chance) was in (from) my angle, and somehow it didn’t go in.”
“It probably changes the game,” Neal said. “It’s probably a different game after that.”
The Knights felt they had put up their best period of the series, but still found themselves in a massive hole.
“It was frustrating,” head coach Gerard Gallant said. “I thought we played a pretty good game.”
Vegas got a power play early in the second, but were unable get past Holtby, and found iron twice more as the period wore on.
Brayden McNabb’s floater from the point hit the post and Ryan Carpenter chimed one off the crossbar on the follow up before Vegas failed to connect on another man advantage despite some sustained pressure.
Holtby took a big slash from Neal later in the second, and Washington made Vegas pay when Carlson blasted his fifth beyond Fleury’s glove with 4:37 remaining to make it 4-0 on only the Capitals’ 14th shot.
Neal finally broke Holtby’s shutout bid at 5:43 of the third when he fired a shot upstairs at the side of the net for his sixth just as a Washington penalty expired.
Smith made it 4-2 at 12:26 with his fourth when the Capitals couldn’t clear their zone, but Kempny put any thought of a comeback to bed just 1:13 later when he finished off a nice feed from Backstrom for his second after Oshie delivered a thunderous reverse hit on Miller.
Gallant said Miller broke his nose on the play, but it appeared the contact was with Oshie’s helmet.
Connolly added another power-play goal for Washington with 69 seconds remaining to round out the scoring for Washington, which now sits just one win away from the Cup after all the playoff heartbreak that dots its history.
“I’ve never been there,” Kuznetsov said. “I don’t really care about that yet, so it’s kind of easy for me.”
Notes: Vegas made one change to its lineup in Game 4 as winger Tomas Tatar drew in for David Perron. … Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer and infielder Ryan Zimmerman were in attendance supporting the Capitals, while teammate and Vegas native Bryce Harper watched from a private box sporting a Jonathan Marchessault jersey. … Humboldt Broncos forward Kaleb Dahlgren was also on hand. He got a great ovation from the crowd when lifted his Broncos jersey to reveal a Capitals sweater.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press