WASHINGTON -- There's only one Stanley Cup. It can't be broken apart and shared between teams like a Kit Kat bar. Only one franchise gets to hoist it and smooch it and drink from it like the Holy Grail. Only one roster of names is engraved upon it, etched onto hockey history itself.
Because there is only one Stanley Cup, there can logically be only one Team of Destiny in the Stanley Cup Final, and our annual hobby as fans is observing the omens and miracles that indicate that destiny for one team, while cataloguing the harbingers and stigmata that would indicate the other team has been preordained by the hockey gods as the runner-up.
What made this year's battle between the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights so intriguing is that both teams could lay claim to being the Team of Destiny, from a narrative sense. The Capitals' journey through their old tormentors has been well-documented, as has the irony of a team climbing through an allegedly closed championship window to finally play for one. The Golden Knights are trying to win a championship in their first year of existence, with a ragtag group plucked from other teams, for a city that has looked to them for healing after an incomprehensible tragedy.
Yet, after three games and two consecutive Capitals victories, the trend lines are undeniably in Washington's favor, as are those little moments that add up to the nebulous sum of "destiny": Evgeny Kuznetsov's comeback from a Game 2 injury to score the game winner in Game 3; Braden Holtby making "The Save" in Game 2, and then "The Mistake" for a Vegas goal in Game 3 -- but then having that moment slip into history rather than being a momentum-shifting death knell.
"It's one bad play, a lucky play that went in. But nobody even bats an eye," said Capitals defenseman John Carlson of Holtby's miscue.
Even when Vegas gets lucky, it's not lucky enough to win.
So three games into the Final, we begin to wonder whether the Golden Knights' luck has indeed run out, because they used to manufacture it themselves, and the coffers look empty.
They'd roll four effective lines. They'd swarm the opposing net. Even in games when the possession numbers would swing in their opponent's direction, the Knights would come out unscathed, thanks to limiting high-danger chances, taking care of the puck and allowing Marc-Andre Fleury to be the best player on the ice most nights.
That team has yet to appear in the Stanley Cup Final. For example, here's what Game 3 looked like from a shot-generation perspective.
- Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) June 3, 2018
"I think we're just not playing our identity," said defenseman Deryk Engelland.
There's a reason for that: The Capitals aren't allowing them to play it. A few examples:
They aren't rolling four effective lines. The Jonathan Marchessault line is getting its chances, and Ryan Reaves' "International Line" continues to produce above expectations for a fourth line. But the Golden Knights' second line -- David Perron, Erik Haula and James Neal -- is getting devoured by the Evgeny Kuznetsov, Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson line. The gazelle put up a better fight against the lion in those National Geographic specials.
"I think every night it's just one or two lines that show up," Marchessault said, "I think that's not good for our group. We definitely need better from everybody."
They've lost the front of the net on offense. Six of the Golden Knights' 10 goals against the Winnipeg Jets were scored on the doorstep of goalie Connor Hellebuyck. Four of their six goals in Game 1 against the Capitals were scored in the same manner against Braden Holtby. Since then, they've not only failed to score from close proximity but are hardly getting chances: Those pinpoint passes to the front of the net now harmlessly slide through the attacking zone, frequently to the Capitals' sticks. Their timing is off -- and it's Washington's doing.
"That was one adjustment [we made]," said center Jay Beagle. "If you watched Game 1, they were in the interior. They were getting to our net, and we didn't like [that]. They have that triangle offense: From behind the net, they take it to the net pretty hard, and they have that third guy lower than some teams. We wanted to make sure we were boxing them out better, getting to the interior and protecting our net."
Those four goals for the Knights in front of Holtby in Game 1 were the norm for them. Capitals coach Barry Trotz, however, saw them as an anomaly for his team. "If you look at us through the course of the last 15 playoff games, maybe more, and the end of the season, that's the way we play defense. We've locked that down a lot better," he said.
That's not just in front of the crease.
They've lost the neutral zone and, frequently, the puck. To a man, the Golden Knights will tell you this is where the series is being won and lost: Between the blue lines, where the Capitals are disrupting play and stealing pucks while the Knights are helplessly trying to generate offense.
"I don't think we've played our game in the neutral zone. We have turned way too many pucks over. Normally we're pretty good at managing the puck well, and that's not what we're doing," Marchessault said.
What are the Capitals doing?
"Offensive teams have certain tendencies, certain routes that they take through the neutral zone, plays they like to make, so if you can be on top of them and turn over some pucks, stifle them, make it hard for them to gain entry with possession, that frustrates skilled players," said defenseman Matt Niskanen. "You ask any skilled player, they want to have the puck with possession and speed, so if you can be in their face, just standing in the way, it's amazing what that does. Make them move the puck sooner than they want to, hold the blue line, make them dump it and then you have numbers back for good breakouts. We've done a good job with that."
The Capitals' defense isn't a reinvention of the wheel. Marchessault notes that they're playing the same 1-1-3 zone that the Golden Knights broke through against Winnipeg. But their commitment to a team defensive concept is greater than it has ever been during Ovechkin's tenure in the NHL. It started with team meetings at the end of the regular season to reaffirm that commitment; it continued through three proof-of-concept rounds, carrying the Capitals deeper than they've gone in 20 years. There's no mystery to what they're doing, just mastery:
Vegas hasn't held the lead late. The Knights haven't caused anxiety in the Capitals yet, forcing them to climb out of a late-game hole. In 10 of their 15 games preceding the Stanley Cup Final, the Knights held a lead after two periods. They won each time. In this series, they've yet to enter the third with the lead. The Capitals have held two-goal leads entering the third in consecutive games.
The Golden Knights' rallies have dried up. One of the hallmarks of this Vegas run to the Cup Final has been its ability to rally after opponents score goals, refusing to allow them to dig a deeper hole. That wasn't the case in Games 2 and 3. There was no immediate counterpunch. The Capitals were allowed to play with the lead. The Knights hate that.
"Against the Jets, we often played with the lead. The Jets had to find ways to come back. The Caps play a similar style defensively. They wait a little further back, and they take advantage of our mistakes to restart the attack," Fleury said.
That attack has been led by the Capitals' bold-faced names: Ovechkin scored a critical goal in Game 2. Ovechkin and Kuznetsov both scored in Game 3. The Golden Knights have made it this far with 12 forwards pulling the rope, but it's at these moments when you'd like one guy to throw it over his shoulder and drag it himself. That's been Ovechkin for the Capitals.
"He was possessed out there," Carlson said. "That's a good way to put it, I think. He's playing with passion and energy and joy, and he's a one-man wrecking crew."
How the Knights can turn things around
The Golden Knights do have a star player they've relied on throughout the season: Fleury. He entered the Stanley Cup Final with the best save percentage in NHL history for a goalie having played at least 15 games in a single postseason.
He hasn't been a liability in the Stanley Cup Final, but he also hasn't come close to the steady, effective play we saw from him in the previous three rounds, or as good as his Washington counterpart, Holtby, in Games 2 and 3.
Simply put, the Capitals might be the team least intimidated by Fleury. He has won in big spots against them over the years but hasn't put up intimidating numbers.
"We watched the video. We know how he plays. We've played against him lots of times. We just have to do the same thing," Ovechkin said.
Just like the Capitals take their emotional cues from Ovechkin's heart-on-his-sleeve play, the Knights take theirs from ever-optimistic Fleury.
"We haven't been behind in any series. It doesn't mean we're out of it. We still have a lot of minutes to be played, a lot of periods. Got a lot of time to put ourselves back in the series," the netminder said after Game 3. "It's frustrating to lose. We would like to win every game. But tomorrow the sun will rise again."
As the sun rises on Game 4, the Golden Knights have to be wondering whether Lady Luck has jumped off their bandwagon in favor of the Capitals. Whether they're still the Team of Destiny or are actually fodder for the real one. Whether the magic they created for three rounds has dissipated, like seeing David Copperfield's act for a 10th straight night at the MGM Grand.
We'll know more after Game 4, perhaps definitively so. Teams that have taken a 3-1 series lead in the Stanley Cup Final have won an astounding 31 consecutive series, and are 32-1 overall, since the championship round went to a best-of-seven series in 1939, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
The Golden Knights have specialized in overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds. But given the current state of their fortunes, one imagines they'd prefer not to wager on such long odds.