WASHINGTON — The Stanley Cup Final is a block party for the Washington Capitals.
For all of Evgeny Kuznetsov’s points on offence and Braden Holtby’s saves in net, the Capitals are one win away from blocking their way to the Cup. They’ve gotten in front of almost a third of the Vegas Golden Knights’ shots, blocking with enough smarts and precision to take a 3-1 series lead into Game 5 Thursday.
“There’s more to blocking shots than just going out there and trying to get hit,” Holtby said. “We’re doing a great job of creating the right layers, guys going out there strategically to know which lane I’m picking for sight lines and they’re taking away the other half and making big blocks.”
Washington is blocking in quantity and quality in the final, 86 total, in limiting Vegas to 124 shots on Holtby — many of which he’s seeing and stopping . Even star captain Alex Ovechkin is blocking shots as he gets closer to tasting his first championship.
“You see ‘O’ jumping in front of shots, it makes everyone on the team want to do the same,” winger Devante Smith-Pelly said.
Blocking shots is a team-wide commitment right now and comes from a season’s worth of skaters, goaltending coach Scott Murray, Holtby and Philipp Grubauer getting on the same page. The goalies have worked on making sure they can see past blocks to give players the confidence to get in front of pucks.
And in return, Capitals players study opponents’ tendencies and consciously decide when to try to block a shot and not so Holtby isn’t at a disadvantage.
“You obviously don’t want to cross in front of him,” centre Jay Beagle said. “You don’t want to become a screen. So if you miss the block, which happens, guys are good at shooting pucks and stuff, you want it still so from your standpoint you didn’t hinder Holts’ view.”
Defencemen have an understanding of which half of the net is their responsibility and which half is Holtby’s. Forwards closer to the blue line have to react quickly, take the right angle and get to the shooter.
“If guys have time and space, they’re going to be able to sift one through,” Smith-Pelly said. “For the forwards, it’s just going out there pretty hard and just getting in the way.”
The amount of shots the Capitals have blocked through four games seems to be getting in the Golden Knights’ heads. They’re struggling to get quality shots through and resorting to settling for lower-danger scoring chances.
“If you’re going to take shots, make sure they pay a price for blocking those shots,” Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said. “Shoot it harder.”
Capitals coach Barry Trotz doesn’t want his players thinking too much about blocking shots or hesitating. He doesn’t care much about Ovechkin’s blocking form or the philosophy of shot-blocking as long as it keeps the puck out of the net.
“If you’re positionally sound, if you’re in shot lanes, block the shot,” Trotz said. “It’s all about will.”
And that will can turn into skill. Washington has been comfortable and confident enough in the final to push the puck up ice quickly, and a well-timed block shot can set the table for an odd-man rush.
“The less shots they have, the more opportunities we’re gonna have in offensive zone,” defenceman Dmitry Orlov said. “Sometimes when you block it, you get quicker pass and you jump on the rush and you got 3-on-2 or 4-on-3.”
The Golden Knights by this point are well-aware of that. But they don’t really have a solution.
“You just have to — I don’t know — defencemen, puck fake, maybe move around, or maybe look for a guy off to the side, or put it off the end wall,” forward Alex Tuch said. “There are a bunch of different plays that could happen and when they’re blocking shots they’re getting momentum from it, and if they’re blocking shots and having odd-man rushes that’s even worse. “
In addition to a suffocating neutral-zone trap that’s not easy to play but has frustrated opponents for four rounds, the Capitals have embraced a shot-blocking-when-it-matters mentality.
“It’s not exactly fun, but you got to do if you really want to win,” Smith-Pelly said. “Everyone is on board with doing those things.”