ARLINGTON, Va. -- Gerard Gallant should win the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year, hands down. What he did with the Vegas Golden Knights in the regular season was remarkable, molding a collection of castoffs into the greatest expansion team of all time.
But you know he would trade that for the Stanley Cup after a lifetime of striving as a player and coach. He's so close to his first championship, three wins away. And it all could come down to how he handles this situation.
It's not only that the Golden Knights trail the Washington Capitals 2-1 in the Stanley Cup Final entering Game 4 of the best-of-7 series at Capital One Arena on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS). It's why.
The Golden Knights have not looked like themselves yet in the series and have lost back-to-back games for the first time in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Gallant has to fix the Xs and Os, boost the confidence of a team that suddenly seems sagging, and do it quickly.
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"In the three games, we haven't been good enough," he said at Kettler Capitals Iceplex on Sunday. "If we don't step up our game, the same result's going to happen tomorrow night. So we'll see what we're made of."
This is the main concern: The Golden Knights scouted the Capitals when they played the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final. They experienced the Capitals' style firsthand in the first two games but especially Game 2, a 3-2 loss. They talked about simplifying their game. Yet they failed to adjust in Game 3, a 3-1 loss.
They're a fast, forechecking team, but looked slow and out of sync. When they tried to skate through the neutral zone, the Capitals were in their way. When they tried passes, the Capitals broke them up. When they tried dump-ins, the Capitals broke out efficiently and diffused the forecheck. When they tried to put pucks on net, the Capitals blocked shots.
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Afterward, they talked about how they were nervous, timid, overthinking, overcomplicating.
"Offensive teams have certain tendencies, certain routes that they take through the neutral zone, plays they like to make," Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "So if you can be on top of them, turn over some pucks, stifle them, make it hard for them to gain entry with possession, that frustrates skilled players.
"You ask any skilled player, they want to have the puck with possession in speed. So if you can be in their face … It's amazing 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 have numbers back for the breakouts. We've done a good job of that."
The solution sounds simple.
When the Capitals turn it over, strike quickly so they can't set up defensively. If the Capitals do set up, play closer together and support the puck.
"When you play a wide game, [it's] not going to work against Washington," Gallant said.
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Make short, little plays to enter the zone. If those plays aren't there, chip it into the zone in a way that doesn't allow the Capitals to retrieve it and exit easily.
"Most of the time their right wing is at the blue line, so there's different ways," Golden Knights forward David Perron said. "Our guys that have a lot of speed can go back deeper, gather some speed, and then the defensemen can try and freeze the first forechecker, kick it wide, and then these guys come in with speed.
"If they're confronted, which they will be most times at the blue line, you can put it in and go on the forecheck. You can have guys that hang close to the right winger up top, and as the puck is coming, you win that one-on-one battle with support. You can go in the zone or chip it in, and then the center will go in with speed, create our forecheck."
Sustain pressure. Take smart shots.
"I think we can hang onto pucks more instead of putting it in the slot blindly," Perron said. "I think our line's been guilty, for sure, of throwing some pucks in the slot that don't result in anything other than transition for their team."
But if it were simple, the Lightning would have solved this late in the conference final. The Golden Knights would have solved it by Game 3 at least.
The Golden Knights have to make it look simple, not just make it sound simple, and they have to act with the confidence they projected Sunday, not with the doubt they projected after the game Saturday. Hey, they trailed 1-0 against the Winnipeg Jets in the Western Conference Final and won four straight. Hey, if they win Monday, the series will be tied 2-2, and they'll have home-ice advantage heading back to Vegas.
"We're in a familiar situation with a lot of doubters," Perron said. "That's fine with us. We've got to step up and play the right way, play the way that made us successful. It's a new day today, a new opportunity. We feel confident moving forward."
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