The Capitals Purge Their Past, One Win at a Time

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Here came the chants, booming and shrill and singsong: “Fleu-ry! Fleu-ry!” They reverberated through the partisan crowd at Capital One Arena after the Washington Capitals’ first goal Saturday night, then after their second and third.

How cathartic that must have felt.

The first Stanley Cup finals game contested in the District in two decadeswas a continuation of what has been a springlong purge of cumulative angst and despair for the local hockey team and its fans. A symbol of those failures just happens to be tending goal this series for the Vegas Golden Knights, and if not for some resplendent stops by that man, Marc-Andre Fleury, the Capitals’ margin of victory on Saturday would have been greater than merely 3-1.

But Fleury did cede those three, and with Game 4 scheduled for Monday night here, Washington is now two victories from a championship.

Let that marinate for a second.

Such an achievement would have seemed unfathomable last year, when Fleury, then with Pittsburgh, shut out the Capitals in a Game 7 here. Or in the 2009 playoffs, when he also denied them in a Game 7. Always Pittsburgh, usually Fleury.

Washington has sprinkled clues throughout this postseason that the Same Old Capitals juju has cleared out, gone to torment some other underperforming franchise. The Capitals have overcome a deficit in every series, throttled their Pittsburgh overlords, advanced to the maiden conference final in the Alex Ovechkin era.

On Saturday, those clues were subtle as a strobe light. What distinguishes these Capitals from their forebears is a dedication to structure, discipline and defensive accountability.

“I think right now, it’s automatic,” Ovechkin said, explaining his emotional release. “You just get excited.”

Kuznetsov was excited, too, flapping his arms like a bird as he skated behind Fleury. Afterward, he linked his performance — two points, running his league-leading total to 27 — with that of another showman who once played in Washington.

Kuznetsov: “Michael Jordan, when he played his best game, he was sore, right?”

Reporter: “Are you comparing yourself to Michael Jordan?”

Kuznetsov: “No, no. When you’re hurt, you play a little better always. You have extra energy.”

For most of the last two games, the Capitals have had that extra energy, and on nights like Saturday, when they outworked a team that had outworked everyone else to get to where they were, it’s tempting to presume that they have seized control of the series. That their avoidance of neutral-zone giveaways and erasure of Vegas’s transition game and redoubled presence in front of their own net presage a celebration, as soon as Game 5 Thursday night in Las Vegas.

Instead, Washington will enjoy this for what it was: its second victory in the final round of the N.H.L. playoffs. And what it signifies.

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