The Vegas Golden Knights moved three wins away from capturing the Stanley Cup in their inaugural season with a 6-4 win in Game 1 of the Final against the Washington Capitals.
Here are five things we learned about this series after the opening game, besides the fact that every playoff series should have a Michael Buffer introduction.
Rust and nerves
After looking like well-oiled machines in closing out their respective conference finals, the Capitals and Golden Knights looked like two race cars speeding downhill with the brakes cut. The pace was electric, the mistakes were plentiful. This is what playoff hockey looks like when the home team had eight days and the road team had five days between games.
But there was another factor at play for the Capitals: nerves. Coach Barry Trotz said the combination of final-round intensity and the incredible atmosphere at T-Mobile Arena adversely affected his players. (The night began with five interlopers wearing Capitals flags taking a CGI fireball from an actual trebuchet. Yes, Vegas is a different kind of experience.)
Alex Ovechkin agreed that the Game 1 experience was nerve-wracking, and that the Capitals needed one game to find their footing against an unfamiliar opponent.
“I think next game is going to be different. All the nervousness is over. All the bad things go away in this game,” said Ovechkin, who had two shots on goal and one assist in the game.
Can’t take a breath
The relentless nature of the Golden Knights’ offensive attack was on display in Game 1. Vegas scored four of its five goals — before Tomas Nosek’s empty-netter — from point-blank range against Braden Holtby (28 saves). The Capitals were atrocious below the goal line, and the Knights preyed on that.
“It’s a lesson we have to get better at. You can’t take a breath when the puck’s around the net with them. That’s the game plan. That’s one of their strengths,” said Holtby.
Despite the presence of knights and castles, there’s no mysticism here. Vegas plays a simple, tenacious game. The Capitals couldn’t match that effort.
“It’s not really magical play we’re doing. It’s nothing like a crazy recipe. We’re just trying to outwork who we’re playing against, and tonight we got rewarded,” said Vegas forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare.
Rewarded with Capitals mistakes that led to goals.
“Vegas is good. They’re a fast team and we know that. They’re going to put some pressure on us. But overall I thought we were a little sloppy with the puck. We didn’t make the plays that we usually do. I think we can play a little quicker, more north. That’s what we’ve got to do,” said center Nicklas Backstrom.
The refs were a factor
It’s undeniable that the officiating failed on two key moments of Game 1.
Ryan Reaves got away with an egregious cross-check on Capitals defenseman John Carlson before he scored his third-period goal on the doorstep against Holtby.
“I didn’t like their fourth goal. I thought we were going on the power play there,” said Trotz.
That moment ratcheted up the physical play in Game 1, and led to this Tom Wilson hit on Jonathan Marchessault in the third period: a jarring check behind the play, after Marchessault had played the puck.
“He’d probably say he shouldn’t admire his pass,” said Wilson. “I’m just finishing my check. I haven’t slowed it down. I’ve been told that we’re talking tenths [of a second] here. I think it’s game speed and I delivered it in good time. I think he let up a little bit because he wasn’t aware I was there. I finished him through his body. He might have been a little bit surprised by it, but it wasn’t an aggressive hit. He looked fine at the end when he was yelling at me from the bench.”
There were four minor penalties called in Game 1, including a too many men on the ice penalty when the Knights had seven skaters. It was a passive, “let them play” night of officiating that gave Vegas a goal it didn’t deserve and kept the Knights from getting a five-minute major penalty they probably did deserve after the Wilson hit. We’ll see if things change for Game 2.
News flash: This game was played in a desert. So while mushy ice is already a hallmark for Stanley Cup playoffs games played in the weeks before the summer, the conditions were even more specious in Game 1.
“It’s pretty warm out. The heat outside, the number of bodies in here. You can’t expect to have the ice be fantastic at this time of year,” said Trotz.
This was another part of the adjustment for the Capitals, according to Holtby. “We have to adjust to the ice conditions. You can’t get too fancy with the puck bouncing. They feed on that,” he said.
Ovechkin, however, said any gripes about ice conditions should be immaterial.
“It doesn’t matter. Ice, sticks, skates. It can’t be a problem,” he said.
The bottom six
The bottom line is that the bottom lines were better for the Golden Knights than they were for the Capitals.
“You’ve gotta have depth in the finals. You want it all year, but especially right now,” said Reaves, whose unassisted goal in the third to tie the game at 4-4 was a critical moment.
Reaves noted that the Marchessault line was tasked with playing against Ovechkin’s, so everyone else had to contribute. “Our top line’s been scoring for us, but they’re shutting down a good line over there, so every line has to chip in,” he said.
The Knights’ fourth line of Reaves, Bellemare and Tomas Nosek produced both the go-ahead goal at 9:44 of the third and the clinching empty-netter at 19:57, both scored by Nosek.
“Obviously we’re not the line you’re going to expect the goals [from] every night, but we’ve been trying to create momentum and work, and that’s what we’ve been saying all year long. Build, build, build. Create momentum for your team. And one time, maybe it won’t happen every game, but it’s fun to be able to help offensively,” said Bellemare.
That total team effort was missing for the Capitals outside of Brett Connolly’s goal in the first period. The Knights had more tenacity, more push and more contributions from each line. In the end, they had something else, too: the Game 1 victory.