June 2 vs. Vegas Golden Knights at Capital One Arena
Time: 8:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7 and FAN 106.7
Game 3, Stanley Cup Final series. Series tied, 1-1.
Washington hosts its first Stanley Cup Final game in nearly two decades on Saturday night when the Vegas Golden Knights roll into the District for Game 3 of the 2018 final. The two teams split a pair of spirited, competitive, occasionally sloppy and frequently cantankerous contests in the desert at the end of May, and now the Caps are playing hockey at home in June for the first time since June 16, 1998 when the Detroit Red Wings finished off a four-game sweep of the Capitals, the Wings' second straight Cup title.
Video: #ALLCAPS All-Access | Huge Commitment
"I'm excited," says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin, on the eve of the first Stanley Cup Final home game of his NHL career. "I think everybody is excited in Washington. It's going to be fun, it's going to be interesting and it's going to be hard, but that's why we worked so hard to be in this spot and be in this moment."
Saturday's game is Washington's first home game in nearly two weeks. The Caps last played in front of the Capital One Arena crowd on May 21 when they staved off elimination and forced a deciding Game 7 with a 3-0 win over Tampa Bay in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final. Since then, the Caps finished off the Lightning to move on to the final, and they went out to Vegas and earned a split in an extremely difficult building.
While Washington played those three road games, large crowds of Caps faithful filed into Cap One to witness the games with their kindred spirits and fellow travelers, while many others made the trek to Vegas to see their team in the final for the first time in a couple of decades.
Video: Barry Trotz | June 1
"Just as Vegas got energy off of their crowd," says Caps coach Barry Trotz. "I think we're going to be able to do the same from our crowd. I know our fans are stoked.
"We paid attention to them obviously when we were in Vegas. You could see all the stuff that's happening on the streets and you talk to your neighbors and all that. You go down our street and there are flags all over, and they're all rocking the red. I'm glad this city is having fun with it, that's what you're supposed to do. We're going to need their energy; we're playing a very good opponent. We'll take every ounce of energy they can give us, for sure."
After breaking even in Vegas to run their road record to 9-3 in the 2018 playoffs, the Caps are hoping to get right at home in front of the friendly crowd. Washington is a mediocre 4-5 on home ice this spring, but each of those wins came in positively critical contests; two of them came in Game 5 of each of the first two rounds of the playoffs, giving Washington a 3-2 lead on both series. Another was Game 2 of the Caps' second-round series with Pittsburgh after the Pens had taken the opener, and the most recent home win came in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final against Tampa Bay, allowing the Caps to stave off elimination.
"For whatever reason," says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen, "we have been a really good road team this spring, and just kind of so-so at home. We'll try to be a little better here for Game 3. I can't put my finger on why that is. I love the road record, but we'd like to be a little better at home here."
Video: Capitals Locker Room | June 1
Washington dropped the series opener by a 6-4 score, but the Caps got even with Vegas when they won Game 2 by a 3-2 count on Wednesday night. Washington lost top playoff scorer Evgeny Kuznetsov to an upper body injury in the first period of that game, it had to kill off a prolonged two-man advantage for the Golden Knights early in the third period, and it was able to stave off a late Vegas bid for a tying tally, thanks to a stellar stick save from goaltender Braden Holtby.
Kuznetsov took to the ice for an optional practice with his teammates on Friday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, but his status for Saturday's Game 3 is still up in the air.
"He hasn't been cleared [medically]," says Trotz of Kuznetsov. "He is day-to-day, and probably a game-time decision."
Washington played a much better overall game on Wednesday, and the Caps' pattern throughout these playoffs has been to improve as the series wears on and they grow more accustomed to each foe's unique traits and attributes. The Caps were even at 2-2 after four games in each of their first three playoff series this spring, so they are now 7-7 in the first four games of all series in 2018. But they're 6-1 in Games 5-7 of the first three rounds.
"Our team gets better as we get more familiar with the other team for sure," says Caps right wing Tom Wilson. "Like I've said before, we can adapt to different styles of play, and you've got to feel the other team out a little bit. We play them twice the entire year and all of a sudden in the Stanley Cup final you're going to maybe take a little bit to get to know them. I think everything is out there; it's been two pretty good hockey games here, so we're ready for Game 3."
Clinging to that 3-2 lead early in the third period of Game 2, the Caps got nine saves from Holtby during a stretch of 2:52 of Vegas power play time, including 68 seconds with a two-man advantage. Once they navigated that stretch of rocky road, the Caps held the Knights without a shot on net for the next 10 minutes and 20 seconds, and Holtby's dazzling save on Alex Tuch in the game's penultimate minute helped seal the victory.
"I think we did a good job of slowing them down a bit," says Caps center Lars Eller, "and we did a better job of not giving them all of those quick transitions in the neutral zone, and instead it was us getting those transitions and odd-man rushes. So that was one of the areas where we did a lot better, but I think we were just sharper all over. In almost every single aspect of the game, we were on our toes, we were playing quick, and we've got to try to do the same thing [Saturday]."
The Caps will be looking to take their first lead in this series and to take control of the set on Saturday night in Game 3, with another home game looming in Monday's Game 4.
Video: Caps 365 | June 1
"In the playoffs, home-ice advantage for most teams is not that big of a deal, and it hasn't been that big of a deal for us," says Trotz. "I think we got off to a little bit of a tough start just in our overall game, and I thought we fell down the first two games [of the first round], we didn't have any success.
"We feel very comfortable at home. I think our game will translate at home. I think our fans will give us a really good boost. I know early in the playoffs we always feel a little pressure in the first round, I think probably all four years. Everybody does, I think. It's a first step up from a regular season to the playoff intensity. So I think that's the home-ice advantage goes away for a lot of teams.
"For us, we're fine. I think it's actually going to be a real good advantage for us. We can get some matchups that we actually prefer, and we should be fine. We're very comfortable with our record over the last four years at home, was one of the best in the National Hockey League. I think we'll get right back to where we want it to be."