Knights-Capitals series could be decided by test of willpower

Updated May 31, 2018 - 5:02 pm

WASHINGTON — It doesn’t rank to the level of resiliency so eloquently portrayed within different museums of this capital city along the Potomac, but a certain trend has surfaced in the Stanley Cup Final that just might play a major role in determining its winner.

In their own unique ways, the Golden Knights and Capitals have proven overly tough throughout the postseason.

In this manner, the best-of-seven series that is tied 1-1 and moves to Capital One Arena for Game 3 on Saturday could quickly be shaping into this:

Which side will exhibit the most willpower to overcome the other?

You know the deal with Vegas. It has this uncanny ability to counter an opponent’s success, exhibiting an almost indescribable trait of producing a goal shortly after allowing one.

In winning the Western Conference against Winnipeg in five games, the Knights at one point followed scores from the Jets with their own in time spans of 1:28, 12 seconds and 43 seconds.

They suffocated any chance Winnipeg had of creating momentum.

Washington has dealt with adversity differently, its answer to challenging times more about who might replace a key figure than matching goal for goal.

“This group has had everything thrown at them, and they just say, ‘You know what? We’re just going to push on,’” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz after his team’s 3-2 victory in Game 2 on Wednesday night at T-Mobile Arena. “We’re getting close. We have a vision of what we want to do. They really just want to continue playing, and that’s the great thing. It’s getting hard, and we’re actually loving it. Our group is actually thriving on it.”

Think about it: The Capitals dropped the first two games in a first-round series against Columbus before often hurt but ultratalented forward Andre Burakovsky went down with an upper body injury.

Washington rallied to win in six without him, and Burakovsky then missed the entire second-round matchup against rival Pittsburgh.

In eliminating the two-time league champion Penguins — the first time Washington got the better of its Metropolitan Division nemesis in the playoffs since 1994 — the Capitals also played a Game 6 series clinching victory without center Nicklas Backstrom (injured) and forward Tom Wilson (suspended).

“I don’t think there are too many people in the hockey world when we lost Backstrom in the Pittsburgh series that thought you would see the Washington Capitals get past that round,” Trotz said.

And now, this final against Vegas.

Stealing home ice

Another key injury found the Capitals on Wednesday when Evgeny Kuznetsov, the team’s leading scorer in the playoffs, was lost in the first period after a hit from Brayden McNabb.

Kuznetsov didn’t return and is listed as day to day with a reported injured left arm, but as has been the case with Washington, another player always seems to fill the critical void.

The Knights couldn’t do much to slow Lars Eller in Game 2, as the veteran center finished with a goal and two assists.

He’s sort of a prime example of Washington’s resilient nature.

“Every time this team has faced adversity, whether we’ve been down in a series in games or lost important players at crucial times, players have stepped up and everyone has been just a little bit better,” Eller said. “We showed (Wednesday) and we showed in the past that we can still win.”

Vegas thought it had climbed all the way back when, with two minutes remaining and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury having been pulled for an extra skater, Alex Tuch found open space and shot from about 8 feet.

But the save of the series, potentially the biggest in Capitals history should they win the Cup, was made when Braden Holtby dived across the crease to stop the puck with his stick.

It means Washington has stolen home ice and now will host games Saturday and Monday, here in the place of world class museums, many of which tell the stories of history’s resilient makeup.

In their own unique ways, the Golden Knights and Capitals have proven themselves extremely tough.

Which has the most willpower?

The scoreboard will ultimately decide.

More Golden Knights: Follow Golden Knights coverage at reviewjournal.com/GoldenKnights and @HockeyinVegas on Twitter.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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