Stanley Cup finals: Game 1
Vegas Golden Knights 6, Washington Capitals 4
Series: Golden Knights lead, 1-0
Next game: Wednesday, May 30, 8 p.m. ET | TV: NBC
• The story: You like goals? We’ve got plenty in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals. (Read more)
• Statistical stars of the game: Vegas fourth line comes up aces. (Read more)
• Top takeaways: The Stanley Cup finals are under way in spectacular fashion. (Read more)
• The Capitals leaped ahead, 4-3, less than two minutes into the third period after Marc-Andre Fleury accidentally kicked the puck into his own net. Then the Golden Knights answered to tie it at 4 and added another to take the 5-4 lead. An empty-netter accounted for the final margin in the Vegas win. (Read more)
• The Capitals have been great on the road this postseason, but the Golden Knight’s are one of the league’s best home teams. (Read more)
• Washington didn’t have a morning skate because of a 5 p.m. local start, but don’t expect any lineup changes. (Read more)
• Evgeny Kuznetsov is the postseason’s leading scorer with 24 points in 19 games. (Read more)
• Trace how the Capitals got to this point with a timeline of the season. (Read more)
The Stanley Cup finals are under way. Welcome to the Wild West.
By Isabelle Khurshudyan
LAS VEGAS — Alex Ovechkin walked into the locker room, a beanie on his head and a Washington Capitals sweatshirt over his chest. He was struggling to catch his breath, so much so that a team staffer offered to grab him a bottle of water. He was exhausted after a high-paced game that was exactly what the opponent wanted.
“A little nervous overall,” Ovechkin admitted.
It was the first game of a first Stanley Cup finals for the bulk of both the Vegas and Washington rosters — and the action was riveting but unfortunate for the Capitals. They lost, 6-4, keeping pace with the speedy Golden Knights until they couldn’t, playing a game that wasn’t to Washington’s tight-checking identity.
“They were a little quicker than us,” Capitals forward Brett Connolly said. “You don’t want to be trading chances with any team. There’s two good teams. We can score, too. Ten goals tonight. But no team wants to be trading chances back and forth because then it’s up in the air as to who is going to score those goals.”
Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals is often a feeling-out process for both teams, though the club that wins it is crowned champion roughly 78 percent of the time. For all the plays leading up to the fateful one, for all the frenetic action at both ends of the rink, the game-wnner came down to two fourth lines on the ice. Devante Smith-Pelly failed to clear the puck out of the Washington end, and Golden Knights defenseman Shea Theodore then set up Tomas Nosek’s backdoor strike with 10:16 to play.
It was the ninth goal of the game — good news for those who bet the over — in a game that felt as improbable as the two teams playing it. On one bench were the Capitals, who waited a long 20 years to get back to this stage, making their first trip to the finals with the superstar core of Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. On the other bench were the Golden Knights, who waited all of one year, an expansion franchise in its inaugural season that somehow shunned conventional wisdom by making a deep playoff run so quickly.
“I don’t think [anybody] believes in us and nobody believes in Vegas, and we’re right now in the Stanley Cup finals and we fight for a Cup,” Ovechkin said Sunday.
The back-and-forth action was fit for a show on the Las Vegas Strip. With the teams tied at three goals apiece entering the third period, Washington’s Tom Wilson jammed a puck through Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who then kicked it into his own net just 1:10 into the frame. Less than two minutes later, physical fourth-line forward Ryan Reaves punched a puck in from point-blank range to again tie the game for Vegas. Reaves was on the ice again seven minutes later, when Nosek scored the game-winner. Nosek then added the empty-net insurance in the final seconds.
“I think that was probably exciting for the fans, but not exactly a clean hockey game for either side,” Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby said.
Defenseman Matt Niskanen said “a lot of energy and a little bit of rust can lead to that kind of play.” The Capitals also had to adjust to uncomfortable ice conditions — the puck bounced on a sheet that had to withstand desert heat outside the arena.
“The ice isn’t great, or they didn’t freeze the pucks or something,” Niskanen said. “Not ideal conditions, but they’re playing with it, too.”
The Capitals were prepared for a strong start from the Golden Knights, who were feeding off the energy of their raucous crowd and then vice versa. Vegas took an early lead when defenseman Colin Miller scored a power-play goal 7:15 into the game with a blast from the left point, his shot winding through two layers of screens. The Golden Knights entered Monday’s game with a 10-1 record in the postseason when scoring first.
But Washington seemed to push past its nerves and settle into the charged atmosphere. Earlier in the season, Ovechkin said the Golden Knights’ T-Mobile Arena is “like you’re in a nightclub. It’s like a party. Everybody dancing over there. It’s like, ‘Holy Jesus, are we in a hockey game or is this like a pool party out there?’”
Showgirls lined the glass by the Capitals’ end of the rink during warmups. Two rows of Elvis impersonators — and one gorilla — sat along the glass next to Washington’s bench. A long and elaborate pregame ceremony pushed back the drop of the puck. Famous ring announcer Michael Buffer read the starting lineup on the ice just as he would before a championship bout. Ovechkin skated in circles, antsy and anxious for the game to start.
The Capitals responded 14:41 into the game, when Connolly redirected Michal Kempny’s point shot through his legs and past Fleury, who entered the game with an impressive .947 save percentage during these playoffs. Less than a minute later, forward T.J. Oshie lost the puck on a wraparound attempt, but Backstrom, playing with an injured right index finger, punched it past Fleury’s extended left pad.
The teams traded goals from there, each time responding when down. But then two fourth-line goals late in the third period put Vegas up for good, the house winning once more.
“They’re a fast team, and we know that,” Backstrom said. “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.”
1. Tomas Nosek, Golden Knights: two goals and four scoring chances, all in the slot or the crease.
2. Nate Schmidt, Golden Knights: skated 11:52 against Alex Ovechkin’s line at even strength and allowed no goals and just four shots against
3. John Carlson, Capitals: one goal, 10 shot attempts one hit and two takeaways
Washington battled back from slow starts in two periods but it was the Golden Knights’ fourth line of Ryan Reaves, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Tomas Nosek that ultimately proved to be too much for the Capitals defense to handle. That trio enjoyed a 9-to 1-edge in scoring chances at even strength and its members accounted for three goals. Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith, the Golden Knights’ top line, chipped in two more goals, giving goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury some support on what proved to be an off night for the Conn Smythe favorite.
Quite a show: “Let’s get ready to rumble!” ring announcer Michael Buffer bellowed from the ice minutes before the puck dropped on Game 1. Rumble the Capitals and Golden Knights did. The greatest show in Las Vegas on Monday night was inside T-Mobile Arena, where the 60 minutes of game action lived up to the hype of the pregame show, which seemed to last almost as long. The over-under of 5.5 goals was eclipsed less than 10 minutes into the second period. The teams combined for 10 goals, four lead changes, dazzling assists, heart-stopping saves and controversial calls and non-calls. How ‘bout we do this six more times?
Holtby is human: After posting consecutive shutouts in Games 6 and 7 against the Lightning to help the Capitals advance to their second Stanley Cup finals in franchise history, Braden Holtby looked merely average on Monday in allowing more goals than he had in any game this postseason. Colin Miller’s power play goal in the first period was the first given up by Holtby in more than 167 minutes, and his next scoreless streak wouldn’t last until intermission. Holtby made some impressive saves, but he also gave up some juicy rebounds, including one that led directly to Vegas’s third goal. He and the Washington defense will have to play better in Game 2 if the Capitals are to return to D.C. with a split.
The first one: The Golden Knights, a team that didn’t exist last year, much less in 1998 when the Capitals were swept in their only previous trip to the Stanley Cup finals, won a game on the NHL’s ultimate stage before Washington. Vegas’s improbable run is an incredible story, but the Capitals and their fans would like to see it end. It won’t be easy. Historically, teams that win Game 1 in the Stanley Cup finals go on to win the series 78 percent of the time. Washington has overcome adversity throughout these playoffs. Hoisting the franchise’s first Stanley Cup will require overcoming a bit more.
No rust: Vegas hadn’t played since eliminating Winnipeg in the Western Conference finals eight days ago, but the Golden Knights showed no signs of rust on Monday. Vegas registered eight of the first 10 shots and had the game’s first goal. Before Tomas Nosek’s empty-netter iced the game in the final seconds, the Golden Knights’ five goals were the most they had scored in all but two games this postseason. The Capitals didn’t look especially rusty after their five-day layoff, except for at the start of the first and second periods. Washington’s top line got going in the third, when Tom Wilson’s goal gave the Capitals gave a brief 4-3 lead, but as was the case throughout the game, Vegas’s offense had an answer.
Final: Golden Knights 6, Capitals 4
For the third time in four playoff series, the Capitals will have to fight back from down one game to nothing after falling 6-4 to the Golden Knights in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals.
Vegas got three goals from its fourth line in the third period, making it 6-4 with an empty-netter inside the final five seconds. The Caps created a sustained bit of pressure after pulling Braden Holtby in the final minutes, but their best chance fell through when Tom Wilson’s feed to Lars Eller in front of a yawning net was broken up. The Caps fell to 0-5 all time in Stanley Cup finals games.
It’s over: An empty-net goal put Vegas up two goals and that was the final margin as the Golden Knights won their first-ever Stanley Cup finals game.
Caps need one: With less than four minutes to play, Evgeny Kuznetsov nearly wristed a shot off Deryk Engelland’s stick and past Marc-Andre Fleury, but the Vegas goalie got just enough of the shot with his pad. The chant inside T-Mobile Arena is “Go Knights Go!”
The Knights lead: With 10:16 remaining in the third, Vegas took the lead again, this time on a one-timer by Tomas Nosek off a feed from Shea Thedore. The second goal of the game from the Golden Knights’ fourth line came after Devante Smith-Pelly lost his skate guard while pressuring Theodore. — SA
Schmidt on the spot: The Capitals’ top line continues to apply pressure in the third period. Nearing the midway point of the frame, Evgeny Kuznetsov, whose 10-game scoring streak is in jeopardy, blew past the Vegas defense and tried a wraparound against Marc-Andre Fleury. Former Capital Nate Schmidt helped save Fleury’s bacon, knocking the puck out of harm’s way. — SA
Unhappiness: Here’s who will be happy with the officiating in the third period of Game 1: No one. Caps partisans aren’t happy that Ryan Reaves scored after cross-checking John Carlson. Vegas partisans aren’t happy that Tom Wilson leveled Jonathan Marchessault when he didn’t have the puck, sending him into concussion protocol. Caps partisans aren’t happy that officials conferenced and decided to penalize Wilson after not initially calling anything. Vegas partisans don’t understand why Perron was also penalized. — DS
End-to-end action: Third-period chances were 6-2 in favor of the Capitals after John Carlson hit the post for the second time of the game and Reilly Smith deflected a shot off the crossbar at the other end. Play was stopped with 14:17 remaining in regulation after Tom Wilson leveled Jonathan Marchessault away from the puck. While Marchessault headed down the tunnel and entered the concussion protocol, officials conferred to determine whether Wilson deserved a penalty. Wilson was eventually given two minutes for interference, but Vegas’s David Perron received a matching minor for cross-checking, resulting in 4-on-4 play. — SA
Banana pants: This game is guaranteed to become the highest scoring playoff game in the entire history of the Golden Knights. The previous record was eight goals, set in a 5-3 second-round win over the San Jose Sharks. This 4-4 game will finish with at least nine goals, although who are we kidding, there will probably be 15, and this file will become like 6,000-words long. No one expected this, right? We expected nervous teams, both novices to this sort of pressure, both dealing with rust after lengthy layoffs. Instead, this is like some West Coast late-night mid-January shootout, when you wake up and see the score and go ‘Huh.’ — DS
Vegas answers: Remember when the Capitals had a 4-3 lead? If you blinked, you missed it. Less than two minutes after Tom Wilson’s dirty goal, Ryan Reaves responded. Michal Kempny couldn’t control a bouncing puck to the right of Braden Holtby and it wound up on the stick of the Golden Knights winger, who cross-checked John Carlson into the crease before banging a shot into back of the net. — SA
Four Score: The Knights have allowed fewer than four goals in 12 of their playoff games. They’re 12-0 in those games. The Knights have allowed at least four goals in three of their playoff games. They’re 0-3 in those games. — DS
Top-line strikes: It took 41 minutes, but the Capitals’ top line finally showed up. One minute and 10 seconds into the third period, Tom Wilson redirected a shot that pinballed Marc-Andre Fleury’s skates. Fleury lost sight of the puck and in trying to locate it, kicked it into his own net to give Washington a 4-3 lead. The goal wasn’t pretty, but it was set up by a strong rush from Evgeny Kuznetsov. — SA
What?: Second intermission guest, Game 1 warm-up act and celebrity Knights fan Lil Jon has apparently rooted for just about every team in the NHL. He name-checked the Atlanta Thrashers, the L.A. Kings and the Anaheim Ducks during an NBC interview about his love for the Knights. “This team is not just for Vegas, people that are born in Vegas, that live here, but also for all of us that work here all the time,” he said. “This city is a part of us as well, so I love the team, and I’m here to support.” Much as I’d like to mock a city for marketing its trendy hockey team to a transient if well-heeled workforce … Hey, look over there! — DS
Caps need more from top line: Washington needs a lot more from its live of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson. They have produced three shots and no goals at even strength in Game 1. — SA
Kuznetsov has been a complete no-show for the Capitals. He came into the Stanley Cup finals averaging 15 shot attempts, 7.4 scoring chances and 1.1 goals per 60 minutes at even strength but through two periods in Game 1 he has zero shot attempts, zero scoring chances and zero goals. Kuznetsov and his linemates have also been on the ice for six scoring chances against by Vegas. — SA
End Period 2: Capitals 3, Golden Knights 3
For the second consecutive period, the Capitals started slow but recovered. Despite allowing the first six shots of the frame, including Reilly Smith’s third goal of the playoffs, Washington found its footing and got the equalizer from John Carlson off a highlight-reel-worthy assist from T.J. Oshie. Shots are 25-18 Golden Knights. The score is tied 3-3. The third period should be fun. Try not to stress.
Holtby stands tall: After killing off its first penalty of the night, Vegas went on the offensive. Braden Holtby turned away a David Perron wrister and then, seconds later, gobbled up a one-timer by Luca Sbisa for his 20th save of the night.
Vegas’s PK delivers: Washington had a couple of great chances on the power play, none better than John Carlson’s slapper from the point that deflected off the shaft of Marc-Andre Fleury’s stick, off the post and out of harm’s way. With four minutes to play in the second period, we’re still tied 3-3.
Power play chance for the Caps: Washington headed to the power play with 6:05 remaining in the second period after Vegas was whistled for too many men on the ice. The Capitals are 17 for 59 with the man-advantage in the playoffs, the second-best mark in the league, but they only have one power play goal in the previous five games. No time like the present to change that.
Over over over: Since this game is being played in Vegas, might as well point this out. The over-under for Game 1 was 5.5 goals. The teams hit a combined six goals less than halfway into regulation. If you bet the under: YOU LOSE. None of Vegas’s last six games went over six goals. This one is guaranteed to get there. — DS
All tied at 3: With 11:31 to play in the second, John Carlson backhanded a shot into a wide-open net after a beautiful no-look pass from T.J. Oshie left Marc-Andre Fleury and the entire Golden Knights defense scratching their heads. — SA
Chances for both teams: The Capitals made a bid to tie the game after a turnover in Vegas’s zone, when a T.J. Oshie pass eventually found its way to Jakub Vrana in front of the net. Marc-Andre Fleury made a pad save and collected the juicy rebound with his catching glove with 12:59 to play in the period. Seconds later, Braden Holtby blocked a shot from the point by Colin Miller and reached back to knock the rebound away with his stick before it rolled across the goal line.
Vegas breaks the tie: You could feel it coming, what with Vegas dominating play in the early stages of the second period, spending all sorts of time in the offensive zone and recording the first six shots on goal. While Braden Holtby stopped the first five, there wasn’t much he could do about the sixth, which Reilly Smith buried in the back of the net after the puck bounced right to him on the doorstep.
Let’s get physical: “I would keep hitting if I was the Capitals,” NBC’s Keith Jones said during the first intermission when asked what adjustments Washington should make. “They started to hit a little bit, started to get some more offensive zone pressure. They’re going to have to continue to do that. It’s tough.” After 20 minutes, the Capitals have a 19-11 advantage in hits.
History for Washington: Those first-period goals from Brett Connolly and Nicklas Backstrom were the first the Caps have ever scored in the first period of a Stanley Cup finals game. In their brief four-game visit to this round 20 years ago, the Caps trailed after 20 minutes in every game, by scores of 2-0, 1-0, 1-0 and 1-0. They led in only one of the four games. This has absolutely nothing to do with the outcome in 2018, but then, neither does Carrot Top, one of the Vegas Golden Knights’ biggest fans.
A slow start for Washington (and yes, we know the Caps scored twice): The Caps had one shot on net for most of the first period — but then they scored two goals in less than a minute. Still, a lack of shot volume isn’t good enough to beat a team like the Golden Knights. Vegas had three skaters, Alex Tuch, Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson, generate an even-strength shot attempt in the slot or crease. Washington had two, the goal scored by Brett Connolly and two chances from Alex Ovechkin.
The Golden Knights lone shot attempt on the power play by Colin Miller ended up in the back of the net. — NG
End of Period 1: Golden Knights 2, Capitals 2
Vegas struck first, the Capitals answered with a pair of goals 42 seconds apart and then the Golden Knights’ leading goal-scorer during the regular season, William Karlsson, tied things late during an entertaining first 20 minutes at T-Mobile Arena. “That was quite a period,” NBC’s Doc Emrick said after the horn. Yes, yes it was. While Vegas dominated the shots early on, the Golden Knights’ advantage was only 11-10 at the break.
Washington making every shot count: The Capitals have just five shots on net but two goals to show for it. One a fluky redirect by Brett Connolly past Marc-Andre Fluery and the other a nifty backhand by Nicklas Backstrom. My guess is the Capitals won’t convert 40 percent of their shots on net for long but it’s working for now. — NG
Vegas evens things: Well, this period escalated quickly. With 1:41 to play in the frame, a Reilly Smith shot took a fortunate bounce for Vegas off the back wall and onto the stick of William Karlsson, who banged his seventh goal of the playoffs past Braden Holtby to even the score at 2-2. — SA
Efficient Capitals strike again: Forty-two seconds after Connolly scored, T.J. Oshie’s wraparound attempt wound up on the stick of Nicklas Backstrom, who lifted the puck over Marc-Andre Fleury’s left pad for a 2-1 Washington lead. The Capitals have two goals on five shots. That’ll do. – SA
We’re tied: With 5:19 to play in the first period, the Capitals did something that no other visiting team had done during the first period at T-Mobile Arena this postseason: score a goal. Brett Connolly redirected a bouncing wrister by Michal Kempny between his legs, off the inside of the post and into the back of the net past Marc-Andre Fleury. “That’s what you call a playoff-style goal,” NBC’s Pierre McGuire said. — SA
Holtby’s been busy: Vegas’s 8-2 advantage in shots on goal with 5:43 remaining in the first period is somewhat surprising given that Washington outshot Tampa Bay in six of seven games during the Eastern Conference finals and the Golden Knights were outshot in four of five games of the Western Conference finals. “The Capitals are getting some chances,” NBC’s Doc Emrick said after Brett Connolly ripped a shot over Marc-Andre Fleury, “but most of them aren’t going near the net.”
No O for the Caps: Marc-Andre Fleury has been one of the stars of these playoffs for the Golden Knights, and his numbers will be even more mind-bogglingly impressive if the Capitals don’t start generating more shots against him. Eleven minutes into the first period, shots are 7-1 in favor of the home team. — SA
Vegas announces its presence with authority: Washington cruised through the playoffs largely by dominating at even strength yet early in the first it’s the Golden Knights who are dominating during 5-on-5 play. They are outshooting the Capitals 5 to 1 at even strength with a 3 to 0 scoring chance advantage, plus have the game’s first tally on the power play. According to Moneypuck’s win probability formula, Vegas now has a 66 percent chance to win Game 1.
The Golden Knights have outscored opponents 8-4 in the playoffs at even strength when leading by one. Caps outscore opponents 6-1 while trailing by one. — Neil Greenberg
Vegas in a familiar spot: While they didn’t score in the first six minutes for the first time in four games, the Golden Knights took a 1-0 lead for the 12th time in 16 games this postseason. Vegas is 10-1 when scoring first in the playoffs. — SA
Golden Knights strike first on the power play: With 14:07 to play in the first period, Andre Burakovsky was sent to the box for boarding Cody Eakin. While the Golden Knights don’t have nearly as dangerous a power play unit as the Lightning, they’re 1-for-1 in Game 1 after Colin Miller ripped a slapshot past Braden Holtby with 7:15 gone by in the first. Erik Haula provided a screen in front of Holtby on the play. — SA
Vegas starts fast: Almost six minutes into the game, shots were 5-1 Golden Knights, including a couple of good looks for Jonathan Marchessault. As Rob Carlin mentioned during the NBC Sports Washington pregame show, Vegas entered Monday’s game 5-0 this postseason when it scored in the opening six minutes of the first period, something the Golden Knights did in the last three games of the Western Conference finals. Thanks to Braden Holtby, the Capitals are seven seconds from surviving the first six minutes unscathed. — SA
D.C. also knows how to party: While the Knights busted out all sorts of A-list celebrities before Game 1, don’t forget that the Caps also have their share of celebrity fans. It’s not too early to imagine a Game 3 introduction featuring performances from Chuck Todd, Bret Baier and Scott Van Pelt. Well. Ok. Maybe it’s actually too early for that. — Dan Steinberg
So, about that intro: The pregame show at T-Mobile Arena, one of the biggest productions in all of sports, did not disappoint. It featured Vegas’ Golden Knight mascot vanquishing five skaters representing the champions of the East, blazing arrows and light-up drums. As my sister texted, “I am living for this Disney on Ice: NHL Edition.”
Michael Buffer was also there. “Las Vegas, are you ready?” the famous ring announcer said. “For the thousands in attendance and the millions around the world who wish they could be here…let’s get ready to rummmmmmmbbbbbbbllle.” We weren’t quite yet ready to rumble, however, as Buffer still had to announce the starting lineups. — Scott Allen
A need for speed: Speed is going to be a buzzword during this series. The Golden Knights are fast, and it might appear they have the advantage over Washington in this regard, however, that doesn’t appear to be the case. Vegas has created 32 rush attempts at even strength in these playoffs through 3,707 minutes. Washington, meanwhile, has 42 rush attempts over 4,853 minutes. In other words, these two teams are almost identical in terms of rush attempts created per 60 minutes of play.
‘Tender love: Marc-Andre Fleury has a .947 save percentage with four shutouts during the Golden Knights’ run to the Stanley Cup finals. But he is beatable. A plurality of the goals scored against him (19 percent) have occurred top-shelf on his glove side with a similar share of goals down low on his blocker side. In addition, 12 of the 27 goals scored against Fleury during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs have originated in the slot or the crease, making it imperative the Capitals get up close and personal to the Golden Knights netminder, in addition to creating traffic in front.
The best of the best: In any championship run, a team’s best players must be its best players, and Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov have set the tone this entire postseason. Ovechkin leads the team in goals (12), scoring chances (80) and rebounds created off his shot attempts (11). Kuznetsov is second in goals (11), first in points (24) and second to Ovechkin in high-danger scoring chances (28), those shot attempts in the slot and the crease.
As a result, Washington’s top line of Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson has been sensational during the playoffs. Those three have outscored opponents 13 to 8 at even strength with a 111 to 75 edge in scoring chances.
• Home sweet home: The Golden Knights had one of the NHL’s best home records during the regular season (29-10-2), and they’ve taken that to a new level during their run to the Stanley Cup finals. Vegas has lost just one playoff game at T-Mobile Arena. Meanwhile, the Capitals have occasionally struggled on their home ice, but they’re an impressive 8-2 on the road. Washington even has a road superstition where a member of the team does a hot lap before the game, and because Coach Barry Trotz took the solo skate in Tampa Bay before a victorious Game 7, he did so again in Vegas on Sunday.
The team that wins Game 1 goes on to win the series — and the Stanley Cup — 78 percent of the time, but if Washington can just return to Capital One Arena with a series split after the two games in the desert, then the team is in good shape.
As for the “Vegas Flu,” don’t expect the Capitals to get caught up in that.
“We’re going [to Vegas] to play hockey, not to pool party and play in casino,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “We’re going there to play hockey and do our thing, and then we’re going to have all the summer and whatever we want to do, we can do it.”
• Goaltending: The Capitals have faced some impressive goaltenders to this point: Columbus’s Sergei Bobrovsky, Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray and Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy. Now Washington has to contend with Marc-Andre Fleury, who the team is well-acquainted with. Fleury ousted the Capitals a year ago when he started for the Penguins in the second round.
He’s been on a tear this postseason: .947 save percentage and a 1.68 goals-against average with four shutouts. In Washington’s net, Braden Holtby has been stout since he reclaimed the starting job two games into the playoffs, and he’s just posted back-to-back shutouts. Holtby has a .924 save percentage with a 2.04 goals-against average in 18 playoff games.
“Obviously he’s playing well, he’s always been a good goalie,” Holtby said of Fleury. “I think for us it’s more to focus on how to create those chances because they’re not giving up much, they’re pretty stingy. If you’ve watched their playoff run, they’re pretty stingy on defense and if we’re gonna have success, it’s gonna be irrelevant of a goaltender. It’s creating those chances that no goaltender can stop. That’s how we’ve had success throughout these playoffs and we’ll have to continue that.”
• Defending Ovechkin: The Golden Knights’ defensemen have a number of tough assignments in this series — Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, bottom-six scorers, and so on — but none will be as dire as trying to slow Alex Ovechkin.
Ovechkin has 22 points this postseason (12 goals, 10 assists) and scored in three of the Capitals’ four wins against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern conference finals. His slap shot from the left faceoff circle is lethal from anywhere in the zone, and the Golden Knights, like all teams, will be focused on crowding Ovechkin to keep him from unleashing it. That will be especially important on the power play, where Ovechkin sets up in the left faceoff circle and often punishes opposing teams.
The Golden Knights penalty kill ranked 10th in the NHL during the regular season, and killed seven of the Winnipeg Jets’ eight power-play opportunities in the last two games of the Western conference finals. That unit will need to pay close mind to Ovechkin in order to have similar success, but there is also a danger in giving him too much attention.
“He’s played great hockey, but again we’re more worried about the Washington Capitals than one player,” Golden Knights Coach Gerard Gallant said after his team’s optional morning skate on Monday. “He’s going to be a key player for them, we have to pay special attention when he is on the ice, but they’ve got some really good players.”
Washington’s expected lineup
Alex Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana-Nicklas Backsrom-T.J. Oshie
Andre Burakovsky-Lars Eller-Brett Connolly
Chandler Stephenson-Jay Beagle-Devante Smith-Pelly
Michal Kempny-John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov-Matt Niskanen
Brooks Orpik-Christian Djoos
Braden Holtby (starter)
Vegas’s expected lineup
Jonathan Marchessault-William Karlsson-Reilly Smith
Alex Tuch-Erik Haula-James Neal
David Perron-Cody Eakin-Ryan Carpenter
Ryan Reaves-Pierre-Edouard Bellemare-Tomas Nosek
Brayden McNabb-Nate Schmidt
Deryk Engelland-Shea Theodore
Luca Sbisa-Colin Miller
Marc-Andre Fleury (starter)
Malcolm Subban, the Golden Knights’ usual backup goaltender, remains day-to-day with an undisclosed injury. Golden Knights Coach Gerard Gallant said he expects Subban to return at some point during the Stanley Cup series, but he did not specify when that may be.
Evgeny Kuznetsov: The postseason was disastrous for Kuznetsov two years ago: one goal and one assist through 12 games. He’s since shown that was a fluke and he quite enjoys the big stage. Last playoffs, he scored five goals with five assists in 12 games. In this run, he has 11 goals and 13 assists through 24 games, not just the Capitals’ leading scorer but the NHL’s top point-producer in the postseason. All but three goals have been at even strength, and especially as center Nicklas Backstrom has been nursing an injury to his right index finger, Kuznetsov has asserted himself as a top center and a top player for Washington. He and Ovechkin will likely have to contend with Vegas’s top defensive pairing of Brayden McNabb and Nate Schmidt, a former teammate.
Jonathan Marchessault: The Golden Knights have relied on fast starts all season, and the speedy Marchessault has been a major factor in their offensive outbursts at the start of games. The top-line winger had four goals in the Golden Knights’ series win over the Jets in the Western conference finals, including a score just 35 seconds into a 4-2 victory in Game 3. There will be a ton of energy in T-Mobile Arena on Monday — with the Golden Knights playing in their first Stanley Cup finals after a remarkable inaugural season — and Marchessault (as well as line mates William Karlsson and Reilly Smith) have a chance to sustain a raucous atmosphere if they can net an early goal.