WASHINGTON - Alex Ovechkin went airborne, Evgeny Kuznetsov flapped his arms like a bird of prey and the Washington Capitals are flying high, just two wins away from winning the Stanley Cup.
Ovechkin dived to score his 14th goal of the playoffs and raised his arms in joy when Kuznetsov beat Marc-Andre Fleury and broke out his signature bird celebration in a second period the two Russians will long remember. Led by their two best players, the Capitals beat the Vegas Golden Knights 3-1 Saturday night to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven Stanley Cup Final.
"I knew Kuzy would elevate his game," coach Barry Trotz said. "I thought it was sort of the right thing that in a playoff game, first (home) victory in the finals that Alex would score the first goal. It was sort of poetic justice if you will for all the tough times."
Fired up for the first Cup Final game in Washington since 1998, the Capitals unloaded chance after chance on Fleury, who made 23 saves but couldn't backstop a frazzled, disjointed team that lost two games in a row for the first time in the playoffs. At the other end, Braden Holtby gifted Tomas Nosek a goal by giving the puck away but stopped the other 21 shots he faced from the Golden Knights, who looked nothing like the winners of 13 of their first 16 playoff games through the first three rounds.
"All year we've had a lot of guys going," Vegas defenseman Deryk Engelland said. "That hasn't been the case. Our goalie's been bailing us out with huge saves all night and we have to bear down and be better for him."
The Golden Knights' historic run in its inaugural season is now in danger of coming to an end with Game 4 back in Washington on Monday night. The Capitals are seeking their first title in their 43-year history.
"We haven't been behind in any series," Fleury said. "It doesn't mean we're out of it."
They're not out, but they're down because Holtby was there when the Capitals needed him. Of course, they didn't need him much because they were on the attack for much of the game.
In his first home Cup Final game, Ovechkin attempted eight shots in the first period and scored a goal that seemed inevitable. It came 1:10 into the second period when Ovechkin went full-extension over Vegas defenseman Brayden McNabb to reach the rebound and backhanded the puck past Fleury.
Ovechkin's 14th goal of the playoffs matched John Druce's franchise record set in 1990 and tied him for the league lead in these playoffs.
His joy overflowed on the bench when Kuznetsov showed his injured left arm is just fine by scoring on a perfect wrist shot on an odd-man rush. Ovechkin looked to the ceiling with his arms extended as he was hugged by Lars Eller.
"I think right now it's just automatic. You just get excited," Ovechkin said. "It's huge moments for us. You just want to give emotion to your teammates and to yourself as well."
Kuznetsov was at his best three nights after taking a hit from Brayden McNabb that looked like it might sideline him for at least Game 3 if not more. Invoking Michael Jordan and some of the NBA legend's performances when sick or injured, Kuznetsov said, "When you're hurt, you play a little better always."
Capitals fans who have watched heartbreak after playoff heartbreak easily could've been thinking the worst when Vegas scored early in the third period. Holtby — well-aware of the Golden Knights' ability to cross up opposing goaltenders — had his puck-handling attempt intercepted by Bellemare. The puck skittered to Nosek for an easy goal.
Vegas built some momentum, but Devante Smith-Pelly gave the Capitals an insurance goal with 6:07 left — his fourth of the playoffs — after Jay Beagle took the puck away from Shea Theodore on the forecheck and found his teammate skating in alone on Fleury.
"I've always loved the playoffs," Smith-Pelly said. "I love scoring the big goals. I don't know what it is, but these kinds of games are the most fun to play in."