LAS VEGAS — As chaos prevailed inside T-Mobile Arena early in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals Monday night, Washington Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov found himself not bothered by the furious pace of the Vegas Golden Knights. The 26-year-old Russian was built for wide-open games, and it was clear from the outset that he was determined to counter his opponent’s speed with his own deft skating and puckhandling ability.
Yet there appeared to be something off with Kuznetsov all night in the Golden Knights’ 6-4 thriller of a victory as he committed a slew of turnovers and struggled to leave an offensive impression in a game suited for all of his best attributes. It begged the question: Was he affected by the quality of the ice, which has become a contentious issue in the desert as the calendar nears June?
“It’s not better and not worse than D.C. . . . This is probably the time of the year that it’s pretty hard to keep the ice fresh,” said Kuznetsov, who finished with three shots in the Game 1 loss. “Both teams have to play on the same ice.”
With temperatures outside expected to approach triple digits for Wednesday night’s Game 2 — the forecast Tuesday night called for Las Vegas to be at 97 degrees at puck drop — the quality of the ice inside T-Mobile Arena will almost certainly remain at the forefront of an already-unique Stanley Cup finals. Players from both teams confronted the issue after an enthralling Game 1, wondering whether scorching conditions had softened the playing surface and caused pucks to bounce in unpredictable ways. That caused Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen to question whether the pucks were fully frozen. Center Jay Beagle simply called the surface “pretty bad.”
But by the time Washington returned to the arena for practice Tuesday, the ice was much improved, according to Coach Barry Trotz. He’s hoping the conditions will carry over to Game 2 and help his team settle in after the Capitals allowed six goals in Game 1.
“The pucks were bouncing pretty good [Monday night]. Unfortunately, the ice wasn’t great. Usually that first game [is] on real fresh ice, and the building was warm and all this stuff. The pucks were bouncing a little bit. To me, it was more of that. A lot of chaos because the pucks were bouncing around,” Trotz said. “Today, the ice was so much better. I don’t know if it was the empty building. . . . I thought it was really good today, so hopefully that will help with games.”
What Washington can’t do, should it expect to even the series Wednesday night, is struggle handling the puck as it did in Game 1. Turnovers were abundant, and the Capitals trudged through long stretches of sloppy, discombobulated offensive play. But they also encountered a playing surface that was far more treacherous than they might have imagined.
“Yeah, it’s worse than I expected. But it’s the same for both teams, so that doesn’t matter,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said.
“That’s one of those things you can’t control,” Washington goaltender Braden Holtby said. “Sometimes you just have to play simpler.”
Questionable ice conditions have long been a staple of Stanley Cup finals. In 1975, humid weather in Buffalo created a thick fog on the ice for Game 3 between the Sabres and Philadelphia Flyers. It became known as the “Fog Game.”
As Holtby pointed out Monday night, most teams deal with the challenge of managing high temperatures in their respective arenas this time of year. Ice crews put more emphasis on keeping arena doors closed and curtains drawn.
But players are nonetheless usually forced to acclimate to mushier ice wherever they are, Holtby said. The story line unraveling with the bone-dry heat in Las Vegas could very well remain when the series shifts to humid Washington for Games 3 and 4. For Kuznetsov, the kind of player whose skill set these conditions might affect the most, the key is simplifying his approach when he has the puck.
“If the puck doesn’t bounce, you have a little extra time, which is normal. But sometimes . . . the puck is going to be bounced,” Kuznetsov said. “You just have to get those bouncing our way.”