WASHINGTON — If fans in Las Vegas seem a bit spoiled by the rapid success of the Golden Knights, rest assured that the Washington, D.C. area has paid its dues.
The Capitals, who host Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals on Saturday night, are carrying the hopes of a city that hasn’t seen a Big Four sports team play for a championship since, well, the Capitals way back in 1998 when they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings.
“I think everybody (is) excited in Washington,” Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin told NHL.com. “It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be interesting. It’s going to be hard. That’s why we worked so hard to be in this spot and be in this moment.”
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With the series tied 1-1, Washington carries the momentum into Game 3 and got a boost Friday when center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who left Game 2 with an upper-body injury in the first period, took part in an optional practice.
“He wanted to come back out there in the game, I think, but it just wasn’t in the best interest, and I think him and the medical staff made the right call,” Washington’s Jay Beagle told The Washington Post on Friday. “He says he’s feeling better today, and that’s a great sign.”
Kuznetsov, who regularly centers a line with Ovechkin and Tom Wilson, is the NHL’s top postseason scorer with 11 goals and 14 assists for 25 points in 21 games.
Washington is 4-5 at home in the playoffs but did win a huge Game 6 at Capital One Arena against Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference Finals.
“I love playing at home,” Capitals center Lars Eller told NHL.com. “There’s no reason we can’t play our best game (Saturday) night.”
Vegas enters Game 3 looking to overcome the frustration of “The Save” as it’s being referred to. Goaltender Braden Holtby’s amazing stick save on Alex Tuch’s potential game-tying one-timer with two minutes remaining in Game 2 is already being compared locally to Washington’s greatest sports moments.
Holtby, who also stoned Vegas during a five-on-three advantage in Game 2, is 13-7 with a 2.19 GAA and .921 save percentage since replacing Philipp Grubauer in the second game of the first round, but the save on Tuch dominated the conversation after Game 2.
“We know it’s never going to be easy to win a Stanley Cup,” Vegas coach Gerard Gallant told the team’s website. “So you’ve just got to focus on the next game. You don’t worry about the last game … “
Vegas is 3-0 after a loss in the playoffs and 3-0 in Game 3s. They bring an 8-2 road playoff record into Washington.
“I think we try to play the same game no matter what building we’re playing in,” Gallant said. “It worked very well in the postseason. Try to play the same game, play a quick, fast game, an up-tempo game.”
Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has a 3.56 goals-against average and an .870 save percentage in the two games. He posted a 1.68 GAA and .947 save percentage in the first three rounds of the playoffs.
“There were maybe a few unfortunate goals throughout this series,” Fleury told NHl.com. “I don’t think I’ve sweat it too much so far.”
Knights defenseman Shea Theodore said his team needs to be more aware of Washington’s physicality, which helped it swing the Tampa Bay series and has carried over into the Finals.
“They’re a fast group and their physical,” Theodore told the team’s website. “They finish all their checks and I think that’s something we have to be a bit more aware of. We have to use our speed and we have to turn over less pucks definitely.”