Every game in this year’s Stanley Cup final has featured a definitive turning point, usually coming in the third period. In Monday night’s Game 4 between the Capitals and Golden Knights, that decisive moment happened early—4:31 into the first period, to be exact.
Up until that point, the Vegas Knights had dominated play, showing the desperation of a team that could ill afford a third consecutive loss. Capitals players were pinned in their defensive zone; posts behind Washington goalie Braden Holtby were pinged. Vegas earned a power play, and a goal seemed inevitable. And then, James Neal did this:
James Neal’s nightmares are now just this on loop pic.twitter.com/nN1lymCfwm— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) June 5, 2018
With a yawning expanse of open net in front of him—and a second or two to compose himself—the Golden Knights winger somehow shot it off the post. “I thought it was in,” said Holtby later. “Somehow, it didn’t go in.”
The game thus remained scoreless, and all of Vegas’s early pressure would be for naught. The Caps went on the power play later in the first period, and T.J. Oshie scored the crucial opening goal. The tenacious Golden Knights continued to press. Moments after NBC commentator Doc Emrick noted that scoring chances were 8-4 in favor of Vegas, Tom Wilson netted Washington’s second goal. Then, with only 21 seconds left in the first period, newly minted postseason hero Devante Smith-Pelly plunged in the dagger:
After one, Capitals 3, Golden Knights 0. Vegas would go on to hit several more posts, and even score a couple of goals, but it never recovered. The Caps rolled to a 6-2 victory—six different Caps scored, none of whom are named Alexander Ovechkin—and the team is now one win away from its first Stanley Cup.
It was an uncharacteristically stress-free homestand for these Capitals, who came into the final with only a 4-5 record at Capital One Arena this postseason. Saturday’s 3-1 victory in Game 3 was a Holtby gaffe away from being a comfortable shutout. After one period of Monday’s Game 4, the outcome never felt in doubt. The Caps’ first two Stanley Cup home games in 20 years couldn’t have gone much better. Washington gave its notoriously pessimistic fan base little reason to fret over the course of two satisfying wins as it built a 3-1 series lead. “It’s OK to believe” has become the unofficial slogan for the Caps faithful, as much a therapeutic salve as a rallying cry. Perhaps years of playoff failure have made it easier to identify what a winner looks like.
The Golden Knights, on the other hand, have no history of losing in the postseason—no history at all, for that matter. After Game 4, coach Gerard Gallant and his players grumbled about the referees and insisted that they didn’t play so poorly. Capitals players have referred to painful losses in years past as necessary steps toward what they’ve accomplished thus far this season. Vegas isn’t yet burdened with playoff ghosts, but it also lacks experience to draw on in the face of its first real bout of adversity. Maybe the Knights will rise to the challenge by staving off elimination at home in Thursday’s Game 5. Or maybe Neal’s Game 4 miss will linger on in infamy the way Esa Tikkanen’s miss in the 1998 Stanley Cup final does for so many longtime Caps fans.
Meanwhile, the 2017-18 Caps have a few more demons to slay. No Barry Trotz–coached Capitals team has ever closed out a series in fewer than six games. Historically, Washington has blown five 3-1 series leads, more than any MLB, NBA, or NHL team, the most recent of which came in 2015’s second round. And of course, the Caps have never won a Stanley Cup. But in this postseason, the team has yet to lose when given the opportunity to finish off an opponent.
“We haven’t played our best game, which is exciting to me,” said Trotz after Game 4. His superstar echoed the sentiment: “We didn’t play our best game yet,” said Ovechkin. It’s OK to believe that it might come on Thursday night.