Stanley Cup Final Game 3 Preview: What to watch for as Vegas looks to bounce back in Washington

The Golden Knights will aim to take a 2-1 series lead against the Capitals, who may be without Evgeny Kuznetsov.

The Washington Capitals picked up the first Stanley Cup Final victory in franchise history Wednesday night in Vegas with a 3-2 win in Game 2, tying up the best-of-seven series at 1-1.

Both goaltenders bounced back in Game 2, giving up a combined five goals on 65 shots compared to nine goals on 61 in Game 1. But it was Braden Holtby who made the standout save by robbing Alex Tuch of what seemed like a sure goal on a wide-open net with just 1:59 remaining in the third period.

It was one of the flukiest plays of the year as the puck took a strange bounce off the boards, through the crease and right to Cody Eakin, who sent it to Tuch in front. But Holtby made a game-saving stop to preserve Washington’s 3-2 lead and secure the win. Both teams have now come within inches of tying the game with the goalie pulled (Lars Eller had a wide-open net late in Game 1), but neither has succeeded.

It’s fair to say that neither team has played its best hockey yet. If the first two games were any indication, this series is shaping up to be quite a thriller. Here’s what to watch for as the Golden Knights and Capitals duke it out in Game 3.

The rocket’s RED glare

The series will shift back to Washington for Game 3 for what will be the first Stanley Cup Final game in the nation’s capital in 20 years. Needless to say, a fanbase that has waited 20 years for this moment will not only be rockin’ the red but just plain old rockin’. As with any road game in the playoffs, the Knights will try to take the crowd out of it early, or at the very least try to come out and play a solid road period and keep things to the perimeter.

Taking the crowd out of it early hasn’t been an issue for Vegas this postseason as the Knights have scored first in 13 out of 17 games, including each of the last six. They have gone 3-1 in their last four away games, outscoring the opponent 10-6. Plus, Washington has struggled on home ice throughout the playoffs. The Capitals lost the first two games of their first-round series against Columbus, both in overtime, as well as Game 1 against Pittsburgh and Games 3 and 4 against Tampa Bay. The Capitals have a surprisingly-grim 4-5 record on home ice throughout these playoffs, so the Knights will look to strike accordingly, especially considering Vegas’ 6-2 postseason record on the road.

Next guy up

Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov is listed as a game-time decision for Game 3 because of an upper-body injury sustained on a hit by Brayden McNabb in Game 2 Wednesday night. Kuznetsov immediately headed to the locker room after the hit and did not return. He appeared to have suffered a wrist or arm injury, and it’s possible he re-aggravated an injury caused by multiple slashes by Kris Letang in the second-round series against Pittsburgh. It’s tough to know exactly what the injury is, but it didn’t look good.

However, he was a full participant in yesterday’s optional practice, which is a good sign for Washington. The 26-year-old first-line center leads the Capitals in postseason scoring with 11 goals and 25 points.

If he is unable to play, Washington likely will keep Eller on the second line with T.J. Oshie and Jakub Vrana, with Backstrom taking over top-line duties for the injured Kuznetsov. Therefore, Chandler Stephenson may shift to third-line center to play with Brett Connolly and Andre Burakovsky, and either Alex Chiasson or possibly Nathan Walker could play on the fourth line with Jay Beagle and Devante Smith-Pelly. Shuffling the lineup because of injuries to key players is nothing new to Washington this postseason; the Capitals were without Burakovsky for 10 games and Backstrom for four. That being said, it’s impossible to replace a player of Kuznetsov’s caliber.

Several players as well as head coach Barry Trotz said after Game 2 that losing Kuznetsov on a play that they deemed to be a questionable high hit helped galvanize the team (the league evaluated the hit but determined no supplemental discipline was required; no penalty was assessed on the play). Eller stepped up much like he did earlier this postseason in the absence of Backstrom; he finished Game 2 with a goal and two assists, having a hand in all three of Washington’s goals. While there’s no replacing Kuznetsov, the Capitals will have to fall back on the “next guy up” mentality that has served as a mantra for them throughout the playoffs. This team has faced plenty of adversity, and it continues to come in waves. However, the Capitals remain hopeful that Kuznetsov will be able to play; his status should be decided closer to puck drop.

Physical play

One aspect of the game that could be taken up a notch considering the venue change is physical play. The Capitals played with intense physicality in their last home game, a critical Game 6 against Tampa Bay in which they faced elimination. They were clean but ferocious, and it started early on. Alex Ovechkin has set the tone with early hits on many occasions this postseason, and it’s possible he and his teammates could be throwing the body early. The Knights will have no problem with that; Vegas has played physically when necessary throughout the playoffs, especially in round one against Los Angeles. However, the increased physicality could affect the game in a few ways.

For one thing, if the Capitals are undisciplined in their hit selection, Vegas could take advantage with potential odd-man rushes. Washington has been relatively disciplined in this aspect throughout the playoffs, but the Knights have proven time and time again that they make teams pay for even the smallest of mistakes. Also, if both teams crank up the physicality, special teams could play an even bigger role in the outcome of the game. Vegas had five power plays in Game 2, including a two-man advantage for 1:09, but only scored once; the Capitals scored on one of their two opportunities as Ovechkin netted his first of the series.

One thing Vegas needs to limit, however, is its participation in post-whistle scrums. One such scrum in Game 2 led to matching minors assessed to Oshie and Deryk Engelland, which resulted in two minutes of 4-on-4 action. This led to several prime scoring opportunities for Washington, including one that found the back of the net as Burakovsky made an excellent cross-ice pass while falling down, and Michal Kempny sent the puck back across the ice to Eller, who slammed it into the wide-open net. The Knights experienced similar problems when not playing 5-on-5 in the San Jose series and would be wise to limit their involvement in extracurricular activity tonight.

The Flower and the Beast

Marc-Andre Fleury was much better in Game 2 than he was in Game 1, and Knights fans should expect another solid performance from the 33-year-old Conn Smythe favorite. Though Fleury was a little shaky at times and once again got some help from a friend, he can’t really be blamed for the goals Washington scored Wednesday night, and he kept Vegas in the game with some key stops. At one point in the third, Vegas didn’t have a shot on goal for 10 minutes, but Fleury hung in there and shut out Washington in the final frame. Though the Knights still fell short, it was a promising finish for the netminder who has been so sensational throughout the playoffs.

Holtby had a more impressive performance, however, stopping 37 of 39 shots for a .949 save percentage. Though he gave up another soft goal while short-handed, his stop on Tuch late in the third, now known as “The Save” among Capitals fans, was the biggest save in franchise history and helped Washington secure its first win of the series.

In total, Holtby made 15 stops in the third period of Game 2, coming up huge during Vegas’ late push.

Through two games, both goalies have somewhat similar numbers, however. Fleury and Holtby have each surrendered seven total goals, and the two have goals-against averages of 3.56 and 3.55, respectively. Holtby has a higher save percentage (.903) than Fleury (.870) but has faced 18 more shots. Both will need to be solid for their respective teams in a critical Game 3 matchup tonight.

Steady contributions

Only four members of each team have points in both Cup Final games. For Vegas, William Karlsson, Reilly Smith, Shea Theodore and Colin Miller have found the scoresheet in back-to-back games, and Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kempny and Burakovsky have done the same for Washington. Vegas got a key goal from second-line winger James Neal in Game 2, but the Knights still need more from the middle six. The Capitals lineup could vary significantly depending on the availability of Kuznetsov, but every top-nine forward has at least a point through two games, which can’t be said of the Golden Knights, who have not gotten a single point from the third-line trio of Eakin, Tuch and Ryan Carpenter. Plus, David Perron’s only point came in the form of an assist on Tomas Nosek’s empty-net goal at the end of Game 1.

Washington doesn’t have a point from its fourth line, though Stephenson and Smith-Pelly played better Wednesday night. Though Beagle finished last on the team in 5v5 Corsi For percentage in Game 2 (31.58), he had an effective game with some key faceoff wins and blocks, as well as solid work on the penalty kill, especially when Vegas had a two-man advantage. Aside from perhaps Vegas’ fourth line and Washington’s second line (as well as Burakovsky), there has been a lot of inconsistency from everyone in this series; it’ll be interesting to see who steps up tonight.

How to Watch

Time: 5 p.m. PT

TV: NBC Sports Network

Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM/1340 AM