The Washington Capitals are up 3-1 in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final, but the Vegas Golden Knights are back home at T-Mobile Arena for Game 5. We checked in with our panel to answer the biggest questions -- and get their pick on the game.
The Knights must ______ to win Game 5.
Greg Wyshynski, senior hockey writer: Create an ounce of doubt in the minds of the Capitals. You can count on one hand the number of times it felt like the Capitals didn't have control of this series since Game 2. In previous rounds, the Golden Knights stunned their opponents with speed and scoring and, most importantly, a hole from which those opponents had to dig. In 10 of their 15 games preceding the Stanley Cup Final, the Knights held a lead after two periods. They won each time. They didn't lead entering the third in this series' first four games. "When we're playing our game, we're putting doubt in other teams' minds," defenseman Shea Theodore said. Considering the Capitals' history with 3-1 playoff leads, that's essential.
Emily Kaplan, national hockey reporter: Tighten up on defense and clog shooting lanes. Most lopsided stat from the Final: In the Capitals' three wins, they have a 68-25 advantage in blocked shots. Other than that, the Golden Knights should start the game exactly as they did in Game 4, buzzing with energy. Several Vegas players said Game 4 was their best performance of the series. (I agree.) Keep at it, and don't get discouraged -- and pray that the hockey gods even out the bounces.
Chris Peters, hockey prospects writer: Dictate the pace of the game and own the puck more consistently. The Golden Knights have had stretches, even during the past few games, when they looked like the better team. If they can use their speed to keep the pressure on Washington's blue line, test Braden Holtby and keep the puck at the other end of the ice as much as possible, they're going to give themselves a chance. This team has thrived on everyone's contributions, and it will need every last guy playing an attacking brand of hockey that made it one of the NHL's best stories in years.
Victoria Matiash, fantasy hockey analyst: Erupt with a first-period effort similar to what we saw in Game 4. They were the better team through 20 minutes. Fourteen times out of 15, James Neal doesn't miss that open net -- which would set an entirely different tone for the rest of the period -- and the Knights would head back to the dressing up one or more instead of down 3-0.
Ben Arledge, Insider NHL editor: Attack early and often. The crowd is the Knights' best asset in Game 5, and you can't lose it with a sluggish start. If Vegas can pot one in the opening minutes and set the tone, it'll be in good shape. Start flat and let Washington play its game, though, and it will be a long night. From the puck drop, the Knights need to be the better team. Even if the game starts 30 minutes later than expected again so Panic! at the Disco can play a full set, the Golden Knights can't afford to show up late.
What was the turning point for the Capitals' season?
Wyshynski: The most important game of the Capitals' season, and perhaps the Alex Ovechkin era up until this point, was Game 6 of the second round, when they eliminated the Pittsburgh Penguins. Please recall that this was the game in which they were without center Nicklas Backstrom and winger Andre Burakovsky to injury, and Tom Wilson to suspension. A Game 7 seemed inevitable. Instead, the Capitals got a goal created by Alex Chiasson and Nathan Walker, neither of whom have seen a second of ice time in the Final, and the game winner created by Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. The unburdening of the weight of previous playoff failures -- the Capitals defeated the Penguins for just the second time in 11 series in franchise history -- has propelled them to one win from the Cup.
Kaplan: What's different about this team -- as opposed to the many excellent Alex Ovechkin-led teams over the past 13 years -- is its success in the playoffs. So I have to point to Game 3 of the first round. Down 2-0 in the series -- after squandering regulation leads to lose in overtime -- Washington finally got the bounce it needed in the form of an ugly double-overtime goal. This gave the Capitals the confidence to thwart their biggest foes, the Penguins, in the second round, and the rest is -- they hope -- history.
Peters: I'm going with the same series as Emily, but I'm going to go with the emphatic close-out in Game 6 against the Blue Jackets. With the Caps, no one is comfortable until a series is over. In that game, Holtby got a lot of work as the Blue Jackets just kept pouring it on, finishing with 38 shots on goal. Each time Columbus seemed to have life, the Capitals would snatch it away. That game was eye-opening and showed that this team could close, even if it was still a little hard to believe given the club's recent postseason history.
Matiash: Wedging myself between Emily and Chris, I felt the tide truly turn in the Capitals' favor in Game 4 against the Blue Jackets. After nailing a crucial overtime win in Game 3 to draw back into the series, Washington left little to question with a dominating 4-1 victory in Game 4. Ovechkin was terrific. Kuznetsov racked up four points. Holtby was nearly impenetrable. Although the series was now tied 2-2, there was already a sense of looking forward to the next round, and -- Penguins or no Penguins -- beyond.
Arledge: At first glance, I looked at Game 3 of the opening round and Barry Trotz's return to Holtby in net. Yeah, remember that? Philipp Grubauer was the starting goalie entering the playoffs. Wild times. Hard to see the Caps in their current spot without Holtby in the crease.
But for the sake of variety, how about Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final against the Tampa Bay Lightning? After winning the first two games of the series behind 10 combined goals, the Caps dropped three in a row and faced elimination. Even though they had broken the conference final barrier, it looked like the Capitals were destined to come up short of the ultimate goal yet again. Then Washington rolled out back-to-back shutouts and outscored the Bolts 7-0 in Games 6 and 7. Tampa Bay is a damn talented hockey team, but Washington showed no quit and dominated play. And here they are two weeks later, one win from a championship.
Who will be the X factor of Game 5?
Wyshynski: Marc-Andre Fleury, full stop. Holtby has won five of his past six games and has posted a .965 save percentage in those five wins. Fleury hasn't had a save percentage north of .900 in any games of this series, with a putrid .739 in Game 4. For all of their dynamic offense in previous rounds, it was Fleury who carried the Knights to the Final. If he isn't their best player on the ice in Game 5, the Capitals could skate with the Cup in Vegas.
Kaplan: If the Golden Knights have any shot at winning, their top line needs to show up. This trio combined for 51 points through their first 16 games of the postseason. Their offensive impact versus Washington, however, is more of a blip. William Karlsson, a 43-goal scorer in the regular season, has only five shots this series and might be working through an injury, as he missed a well-attended optional practice Wednesday. Jonathan Marchessault, who buzzed with eight goals the first three rounds, doesn't have one in this series.
Peters: I think Fleury is no question the most important player on the ice, but I think for the Golden Knights to win, they're going to need more than him. That's why I'm going with Nate Schmidt. He's integral to the Golden Knights' success but has not had an amazing series to date, at least not relative to his previous play. It's not about production with him, it's about how he allows the Golden Knights to control the puck more. They need to keep the pressure on, and few players on their roster are more important to getting the puck up ice as Schmidt is.
Matiash: Sounds like he might be a little banged up, having skipped Wednesday's practice, but Karlsson needs to raise it up a peg. The Knights' leading scorer has been altogether quiet since potting an early equalizer in the series opener. Washington's stars have risen to the occasion this Stanley Cup Final. The cream of Vegas' forward crop -- Karlsson and Marchessault -- has not. Assuming Vegas defenders help Fleury out more by quashing a greater percentage of high-quality scoring chances (as Emily notes above), I'm looking for extra from that Knights top line.
Arledge: Fleury is going to need to stand on his head. He's the X factor, without a doubt. He's probably the reason Vegas even reached the Final, and he hasn't been bad in this series, per se -- the defense has been pretty bad -- but he's going to have to return to that otherworldly caliber of play if the Knights are going to push a Game 6. I'd also like to see Marchessault find the net. He has 20 shots on goal in the Final. Twenty. That's seven more than any other Vegas skater, and six more than Ovechkin, the leading Capital, who has two goals. It's time for the winger to strike gold.
The Capitals are heading back to D.C. after this game. Will the Golden Knights be joining them?
Wyshynski: I never thought I'd see the postseason when the Washington Capitals could be praised for their assassin-like efficiency in closing out a series when given the opportunity, but here we are. "Guys are sick of hearing about it from the meetings. Sick of not getting it done," defenseman John Carlson said. "We've been through things like this before, and we know. It just seems different this year. Everyone's at a different place mentally and physically than we've been at in the past." I'll buy that: The Capitals close this out in Game 5.
Kaplan: Yes, we'll have a Game 6. But that's it; the Capitals won't succumb to the pressure and will close this thing out. Oh, and another prediction: Despite some chatter, the Golden Knights won't actually have a parade if they lose, the equivalent of a Stanley Cup Final participation trophy.
Peters: I think this one is going to Game 6, too. There's no question that the Caps have looked in control, but it seems like every time you're ready to give up on Vegas, the Golden Knights bounce back in a big way. They've never been in the position they're in now, down 3-1, but they have been excellent at home, and I think we'll see them give the home crowd one more good show, at least.
Matiash: The Golden Knights probably have one more victory up their sleeve before packing it all in back in Washington. Home ice, spectacle and all, certainly helps. So does facing a nervy opposition. This one-win-from-hoisting-the-Cup spot is uncharted territory for Ovechkin & Co. It might take them a while to settle down and get in a groove.
Arledge: Yes, I've got Vegas winning Thursday night. With home-ice advantage and their backs against the wall, I think the Golden Knights tighten down defensively and dictate the play to force a Game 6. It's also time we see the version of Fleury who got them here. All that said, Vegas fans should enjoy it, because I think it's the last time we see the Knights at home this season. I picked Golden Knights in 7 originally, but the Capitals have been far and away the better team this series, and I think they get it done on Sunday in D.C.