WASHINGTON -- Unglamorous elements like blocking shots and killing penalties are the new glue solidifying the Washington Capitals in their bid to win the Stanley Cup for the first time.
Defenseman Matt Niskanen is the poster boy for that kind of stability, which has Capitals within one win of their goal. Washington leads the Vegas Golden Knights 3-1 in the best-of-7 Stanley Cup Final entering Game 5 at T-Mobile Arena on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).
"That's a nice compliment, but I don't approach it that way," said Niskanen, the 31-year-old from Virginia, Minnesota. "I try to play as well as I can within my role. I guess in a way I try to set a good example for younger players. But in the playoffs, you're just trying to do your job as well as you can and be ultra-competitive and play to win."
[RELATED: Complete Golden Knights vs. Capitals series coverage]
Niskanen has been a workhorse for the Capitals during the Final, leading all players in average ice time (25:05). He played 27:13 in Game 2 and 27:16 in Game 3. He leads all players in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with 503:30 of even-strength ice time and 55 blocked shots, helping the Capitals become a stingier defensive team the longer the postseason goes. Washington has allowed 11 goals while going 5-1 in its past six games -- six came in a Game 1 loss to the Golden Knights -- and 2.52 goals-against per game in the postseason.
"He's been awesome every game, really, this whole playoffs," said defenseman John Carlson, who leads the playoffs in total ice time (590:10). Niskanen is second with 585:01. "He's been our rock the whole season, too. We always rely upon him in every situation. We're certainly better when he's on the ice."
In his 11 NHL seasons, Niskanen has qualified for the playoffs nine times and played 117 postseason games, but had never reached the Final. He's had chances to win the Cup with the Dallas Stars, Pittsburgh Penguins and, for the past four seasons, the Capitals.
Why are they so close to succeeding this time?
"I don't have a good answer," said Niskanen, who has nine points (one goal, eight assists) in 23 playoff games this season. "I do know that as a group, this is the most committed group that I've been with. I don't think it's the most talented team I've been on. But it's the most committed to the dirty, unheralded type of plays that are so important, that allow your skill to come out. And everyone has bought into that."
Away from the ice, Niskanen, who signed a seven-year contract with the Capitals on July 1, 2014, took the blame for one of the toughest buys in the Final on Monday.
Video: Niskanen looks ahead to Game 5 in Vegas
He and teammate T.J. Oshie took Washington's Metro to Games 3 and 4 at Capital One Arena. But when they arrived at Gallery Place station ahead of Game 4, Oshie's SmarTrip Metro card didn't have enough credit on it for the ride.
"That's actually my fault," Niskanen said after Game 4 with an embarrassed laugh. "I gave him the card. I gave him the card that didn't have enough funds on it. That was classic. That's my fault."
After Oshie struggled at a fare machine to refill the card, a Metro employee eventually let him through the turnstile.
The public-transit experience has otherwise been a good one, Niskanen said.
"We see some fans," he said. "A lot of people are taking the same way to the game. Everybody's been respectful and (they) just wish us good luck."
It has also made the Capitals' connection with the city and its fans more real.
"That's not our intent but sure, I think it does," Niskanen said. "I think you find that for sure small-town, northern Minnesota guys are just normal dudes and have the same problems with getting cash on a SmarTrip card. We have the same problems as most people."
Only one problem remains now: one more win for the Cup.
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