Golden Knights hoping to learn from mistakes and mount Cup comeback

LAS VEGAS — Nate Schmidt put the challenge facing the Vegas Golden Knights pretty succinctly.

“There’s really no Plan B or backdoor to go to here. There’s no side entrance to get into,” he said after Thursday’s practice. “You’ve got to face this thing head on. There’s no way to do it besides fight your way out of the corner.”

The Golden Knights face the prospect of their dream first season coming to an end Thursday night in Game 5. The Washington Capitals have won three straight after dropping Game 1 and the play of both teams has been heading in opposite directions. The challenge for Vegas is to try not to look at it as having to win three in a row. Just worry about one game.

“There’s nothing to focus on the big picture. Big picture’s not there if we don’t win Game 5,” said Golden Knights forward James Neal. “If you’re looking ahead then that’s not good. I think you’ve got focus on our first period, our first shift, take it a period at a time. I know that’s said, but that’s what you’ve got to do. You can’t overlook anything. We’re prepared.”

“I’m not thinking the series, I’m just thinking [Game 5],” said forward Jonathan Marchessault. “If you start thinking we’ve got to win the next three games, sometimes it gets demoralizing. We’re going to do what we did all year. We’re just going to focus on the next game and see where it takes us.”

Vegas hasn’t been able to figure out Braden Holtby since Game 1, scoring only three times at even strength in the last three games. They also haven’t been able to find successful passing or shooting lanes, thanks to the sticks and bodies of the Capitals getting in the way. It’s just another obstacle in the way for a Golden Knights team that has faced challenges all season long and overcome them. 

This challenge, however, is of a different sort. Vegas had trailed in series only once this postseason until after Game 3, and if they’re to do what was unthinkable a year ago and win the Stanley Cup, then they need to have already lost their final game of the season. There’s no more margin for error.

“A lot of people were saying we wouldn’t win that many games this year, we wouldn’t make it to the playoffs, and we find ourselves here,” said Neal. “For sure, we have the ability to prove people wrong and we’ve done that all year. We’ve got a solid group in here. We believe in each other. The first few games I don’t think we got to our game. We didn’t play how we wanted to play. For them, they did a good job of limiting our opportunities. I think we just need to play like we did last game.”

The Golden Knights, despite the 6-2 final score, did play better in Game 4 than they did in Games 2 and 3, but it still wasn’t good enough to best the Capitals. Six of their 11 goals in this series have come from their fourth line or their defense. They need their best players to be their best players in order to have a chance at a comeback, and they need Marc-Andre Fleury to be better as well. There’s still plenty to improve upon.

“That’s something when you look back at the first four games, you realize that’s not what you want. That’s not the gameplan or the blueprint of what makes us successful,” said Schmidt. “But at the same time it shows you the blueprint of what makes us not successful. You look at what didn’t work in the game, sometimes you have to go back and rewind the tape. You can’t look at everything as being sunshine and daisies. We look at what can be adjusted with our game and then you learn from that. 

“If you can’t learn from your mistakes then you deserve what you get.”

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Guide
• Stanley Cup Final schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Capitals’ Stanley Cup Final run is Trotz’s masterpiece

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This Washington Capitals team is a testament to people taking things for granted.

Think of all of the the achievements that were met, ridiculously, with a shoulder shrug:

  • Yet another Maurice Richard Trophy for Alex Ovechkin thanks to 49 goals. It will be his seventh such title.
  • Yawn: another division title, marking the eighth of the Ovechkin era.
  • Sheesh, they didn’t even win the Presidents’ Trophy this time around.

Hockey fans and pundits are probably also guilty of far-too-easily dismissing the brilliant work of Barry Trotz. Such things tend to happen for a bench boss who, much like the Capitals, never advanced beyond the second round before this magical run to 3-1 series lead in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.

Maybe it’s too easy to forget the uncertainty Washington faced before Trotz took over.

Consider that, during the three seasons pre-Trotz, the Capitals missed the postseason once (in 2013-14) and failed to win a single playoff series. Perhaps it was easy to get lost in the “Pittsburgh Penguins curse” narrative and forget just how seamlessly they shot back up the ranks of the NHL. Washington won the Presidents’ Trophy during Trotz’s first two seasons – only to fall to the eventual champions – and owned the Metropolitan Division crown during his reign.

With the benefit of hindsight, this playoff run might honestly be the perfect way for Trotz to receive at least some of the credit he so richly deserves.

Seamless transition

There might have been temptation to dismiss Trotz’s achievements because of all the talent on hand. Capitals GM Brian MacLellan viewed 2015-16 and 2016-17 as the Washington’s two-year championship window, or at least its biggest window for breakthrough success, only to face heartbreak and a hangover.

But maybe those letdowns and fewer roster riches allowed for some focus, and the release of some of the tension of “Oh, but you have to win with this team.”

Despite losing Nate Schmidt, Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams, and Kevin Shattenkirk, the Capitals maintained a high level of postseason success. While this postseason run has been about Alex Ovechkin turning back the clock, Evgeny Kuznetsov finding another gear, and Braden Holtby rekindling his Vezina form, it’s also spotlighted the structural genius of Trotz’s system.

Consider that:

  • The Capitals stood toe-to-toe with a strong possession team in Columbus to win that series.
  • Clearly outplayed the Penguins during that redemptive meeting in the semifinal round. Considering how lucky Pittsburgh’s Game 1 win felt, it’s fair to say that the right team – not just the fortunate one – advanced and justified it being called a “rivalry.”

  • Washington proved to be a riddle the Tampa Bay Lightning failed to solve, too. Andrei Vasilevskiy was able to help Tampa Bay steal some games, yet the Bolts failed to score against Holtby during the final two games of the 2018 Eastern Conference Final. The Lightning’s top line of Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov generally lived off of the power play, as the Bolts had few answers for the Caps at five-on-five.

While the Vegas Golden Knights justifiably carry a “Cinderella” narrative with them, they also presented a fascinating stylistic challenge for the Capitals.

Through three rounds of the postseason, the Golden Knights have been able to create unyielding pressure on the opposition thanks to a ferocious forecheck and impressive team speed. Even the tight four-game sweep of the Kings was misleading, as Los Angeles was often hanging on for dear life, asking Jonathan Quick to carry a huge burden just to stay in games.

An experienced San Jose Sharks team was rattled early in their series via a 7-0 loss in Game 1, and Vegas kept rolling along. With all their waves of talent, the Winnipeg Jets never really found an answer for the Golden Knights’ gauntlet, falling in just five games.

Jonathan Marchessault and the rest of the Golden Knights’ top line made a strong argument that it was “for real” during the postseason.

The Capitals, in turn, made them feel a lot like Tampa’s top combo of Kucherov and Stamkos. Vegas had to feel a bit shackled and negated, not to mention frustrated. Some of that comes down to Washington’s talent, depth, and versatility. Still, it’s the Trotz blueprint that stands as the primary explanation for why the Golden Knights’ freight train approach screeched to a halt.

And, again, that unyielding structure is something people just came to expect from Trotz.

Beautiful hockey mind

Maybe we merely needed to see the game evolve to truly appreciate his work? The NHL is clearly (and from an entertainment standpoint, delightfully) turning to a more attacking, “modern” style. To some, it seems like coaches’ ability to kill all fun and offense hit a critical mass in recent years, and now it’s time for offenses to take over.

Trotz’s work stands as a counterpoint to that thought.

On the other hand, much of his genius is finding the right combination of offense and responsibility. Washington has shown an ability to be able to trade punches with the best of them when needed -Game 4 saw the adrenaline go through the roof, and the Caps were just fine, thank you – yet they’ve also thrived in the kind of grinding games people expect from the postseason.

Through some combination of design and necessity, Trotz has helped the Capitals transform into a hockey chameleon, and that versatility leaves them one win from the franchise’s – and coach’s – first Stanley Cup victory.

The beauty of it all is that Trotz is so widely loved and respected. His acumen and love of the sport can be seen in how he’d hold court with Nashville media, not unlike Herb Brooks going out of his way to teach sports reporters the finer points of hockey.

As you may remember, reporters including Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman wondered if Trotz said that he was on his way out of Washington during a handshake line chat with Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella.

That moment came as the Capitals were heading into the uncertainty that was another second-round series with the Penguins. There have been denials about that statement being made, but if there was a kernel of truth to such scuttlebutt, maybe the drive behind such feelings was that Trotz didn’t feel appreciated. Maybe he felt taken for granted.

(And, sure, there also might be a succession plan involving assistant Todd Reirden.)

Maybe such feelings leave the door open ever so slightly that, even if the Capitals win it all, Trotz might be somewhere else. It’s tough to imagine that actually happening, but stranger things have happened in sports.

Whatever the case may be, Barry Trotz has now earned the right to call his shot, and reminded us all of how brilliant he truly is along the way.

Now he just needs to make sure the Capitals don’t take that next win for granted.

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Guide

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Capitals vs. Golden Knights: Your guide to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final

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HOW THEY GOT HERE

Capitals (49-26-7, 105 pts., Metropolitan Division title)
1st Round: Beat Columbus Blue Jackets in six games
2nd Round: Beat Pittsburgh Penguins in six games
Eastern Conference Final: Beat Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games

Golden Knights (51-24-7, 109 pts., Pacific Division title)
1st Round: Beat Los Angeles Kings in four games
2nd Round: Beat San Jose Sharks in six games
Western Conference Final: Beat Winnipeg Jets in five games

SCHEDULE
Game 1 Monday, May 28 – Golden Knights 6, Capitals 4
Game 2 Wednesday, May 30 – Capitals 3, Golden Knights 2
Game 3 Saturday, June 2 – Capitals 3, Golden Knights 1
Game 4 Monday, June 4 – Capitals 6, Golden Knights 2
Game 5 Thursday, June 7 – Capitals 4, Golden Knights 3 (Capitals win series 4-1)

PLAYOFF HISTORY

Capitals: 28 times in the playoffs, 1 Stanley Cup Final appearance
Golden Knights: Inaugural season

CONNECTIONS

Thirteen members of this Capitals playoff team were drafted by Vegas Golden Knights manager George McPhee during his 17-year tenure in Washington. Forward Jay Beagle was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2008 by McPhee.

Golden Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt played four seasons in Washington after being signed as an undrafted free agent in 2013. He was selected in last June’s expansion draft after the Capitals left him exposed. Vegas forward Cody Eakin was drafted by McPhee in 2009 and played only 30 games with the Capitals before being traded to Dallas in 2012.

McPhee and Capitals GM Brian MacLellan were teammates with the Guelph Holody Platers in the Ontario Junior A Hockey League in 1977-78. They would later play four seasons together at Bowling Green University and reunited for one season with the New York Rangers in 1985-86.

MacLellan and McPhee would become co-workers once their hockey careers ended. In 2004, MacLellan was hired by the Capitals and worked as a pro scout, director of player personnel and as an assistant GM to McPhee.

VEGAS PRE-GAME SHOW BREAK

What Washington D.C. symbol will the knight battle in the Cup Final?

[How Golden Knights were built | How Capitals were built]

CUP FINAL EXPERIENCE

Only Marc-Andre Fleury, James Neal and Brooks Orpik have played this far into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Fleury won three rings with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009 (along with Orpik), 2016 and 2017. Neal, who was with the Nashville Predators last season, was on the losing end of the 2016 Final against Fleury’s Penguins.

TROPHY SUPERSTITION

Hockey players are superstitious and some captains have refused to touch the Prince of Wales Trophy and the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl for fear of bad luck. Others had no problem picking it up. Both Alex Ovechkin and Deryk Engelland lifted up their respective conference trophies, thus throwing the supposed jinx out of the window.

CONN SMYTHE UPDATE

The NHL’s playoff MVP award factors in all four rounds, not just the Final. Through three rounds, here’s who we have as the top five:

1. Marc-Andre Fleury, Golden Knights (.947 save percentage, 1.68 goals against average 4 shutouts)
2. Alex Ovechkin, Capitals (12 goals, 22 points)
3. Braden Holtby, Capitals (.923 save percentage, 2.04 goals against average, 2 shutouts)
4. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Capitals (11 goals, 24 points)
5. Jonathan Marchessault, Golden Knights (8 goals, 18 points)

2018 STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
• Who has the better forwards?
Who has better defense?
Who has better goaltending?
• Who has better special teams?
Who has better coaching?

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Road warriors? Vegas hopes for boost as Cup Final goes to DC

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WASHINGTON (AP) — At home, the Vegas Golden Knights have a fortress to protect, a Knight to vanquish opponents and Michael Buffer to introduce the combatants.

On the road, they have hockey.

The Golden Knights are looking for a little road cookin’ as the Stanley Cup Final against the Capitals goes to Washington for Games 3 on Saturday night with the series tied at one game apiece. They’re 6-2 on the road so far in the playoffs.

”I think it’s going to be good we get on the road,” forward Jonathan Marchessault said. ”I think we got comfortable there a little bit. It’s going to be good to just keep it simple and play our game on the road.”

Vegas is plenty comfortable on home ice, 7-2 even after dropping Game 2 Wednesday. That’s a far cry from the Capitals, who are 4-5 at home.

Road success has been a hallmark of each team’s run to the Final. Vegas won two of three games in a tough building in Winnipeg in the Western Conference final and has built plenty of confidence playing away from home.

”We try and play the same game no matter what game we’re playing at, and it worked really well so far in the postseason,” coach Gerard Gallant said Thursday. ”We just try and play the same game – play a quick, fast game, an up-tempo game. Every game’s important in the playoffs, so I really don’t think it matters if you’re playing at home or on the road. Just make sure you’re focused for that game.”

Focus can be hard to keep at an arena on the Las Vegas Strip where the pregame entertainment is the talk of the NHL. The Golden Knights scored the first goal and allowed the next two in each of the first two games this series, which isn’t how they got to this point.

After a 3-2 loss, Golden Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt said the message going to his old hometown of Washington is: ”Play more direct. Play to our strengths. Try not to get sucked into the transition game that they want to play.”

His former teammates would be wise to listen. For some reason, the Capitals’ game has been better on the road where they can slow things down and take advantage of odd-man rushes.

Three rounds in, they haven’t quite figured out how to do that at home. But coach Barry Trotz doesn’t think there’s a systemic problem with his team at home.

”I think you try to bring some of the things that you do on the road,” Trotz said. ”We’ll get some energy off our crowd and hopefully you want to get the other team on their heels when you’re at home a little bit just as you do on the road. I just think managing the puck is key for us at home. When we do that well, we do it well and we’re pretty effective.”

Gallant concedes that his top line of Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith will have to play against whoever Trotz wants because the Capitals get the last line change on the road. That’s one big plus for the Capitals, who might not have top center Evgeny Kuznetsov after he left Game 3 with an apparent left arm or wrist injury.

”We can get some matchups that we actually prefer,” Trotz said. ”It should be fine. We’re very comfortable at home. Our record over the last four years at home was one of the best in the National Hockey League, so I think that’ll get back to where we want it to be.”

More Stanley Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/StanleyCupFinals

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

PHT Morning Skate: How Caps could have kept Schmidt; tough ice in Vegas

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• If your team is looking to sign a great right winger in free agency, they may be in trouble. Sportsnet looks at the 10 best right wingers that are scheduled to hit the market. (Sportsnet)

• It was a tough year for the Montreal Canadiens, so don’t expect them to part ways with the third overall pick. (NHL.com)

Johan Franzen‘s wife opens up about the difficulties the former Red Wing is having with post-concussion syndrome. Sad story. (FranzenResidence.com)

• The outcome of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final will affect Alex Ovechkin‘s legacy. (New York Times)

• There’s no doubt that losing Nate Schmidt in the expansion draft was a huge blow for the Caps, but keeping him would have been too costly. (Washington Post)

• Why does the Kings’ Stanley Cup ring have a “#FTF” on it? Dustin Brown explains in the latest edition of “Beyond the Ice”. (NHL.com/Kings)

• Former Leafs captain Mats Sundin has some words of advice for the organization as they continue their search for the next captain. “It would be easy to say Auston, he should be the captain. Saying that, it has to be a player and a person that wants to carry that responsibility and actually play better wearing the ‘C’.” (Toronto Sun)

• It won’t be easy, but the Capitals need to adjust to the difficult ice conditions in Vegas. (NBC Sports Washington)

• If Game 1 taught us anything, it’s that the Golden Knights are able to play their game whether they’re ahead, tied or behind. (SinBin. Vegas)

• Now that his hockey career is over, Radim Vrbata will head back to the Czech Republic. He’s also planning on taking the next year totally off. (Arizona Sports)

• A number of people are disappointed that USA Hockey hired John Vanbiesbrouck as assistant director for hockey operations years after he directed a racial slur at Trevor Daley. (Color of Hockey)

• Speaking of the Vegas ice, the heat in Nevada has already started causing problems for the ice crew. (TSN)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.