The Washington Capitals turned the clock back to June, and had they played a Game 6 in the Stanley Cup finals against the Vegas Golden Knights, it might have gone something like Wednesday night. Goaltender Braden Holtby was sharp. Evgeny Kuznetsov was the best player on the ice. Alex Ovechkin was still the top goal scorer.
It’s a new season, and yet the Capitals are carrying on very much the same quality of play as the last time they shared the ice with the Golden Knights. In an early-season title rematch, Washington won, 5-2, thanks to the same players who starred in the postseason four months ago, when the Capitals won Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals in Vegas’s T-Mobile Arena. Kuznetsov finished with four points. Ovechkin scored two goals. Holtby made 29 saves.
“We knew that they were going to be a hungry, desperate team that would like to reverse what happened last year, so it helped us to get a little bit more invested to start the game,” Coach Todd Reirden said. “It’s a work in progress — still some mistakes out there — but there was some pretty high-end plays as well.”
Washington hoisted the trophy in Vegas and partied in the Golden Knights’ city. The banner now hangs proudly in Capital One Arena, on the side of the visiting bench. The Capitals expected all of that would fuel the Golden Knights, that Vegas would want some small bit of revenge.
But Vegas downplayed that narrative. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury acknowledged that if he had to choose between starting against Washington on Wednesday or against Pittsburgh, his former team, on Thursday, he wanted the Capitals. But other Golden Knights players said they had moved on from last season and from any disappointment felt from falling just short of a championship.
“We want to win because we want two points,” Vegas Coach Gerard Gallant said Tuesday. “It has nothing to do with what happened last year in the playoffs.”
The Capitals had a similar approach. In preparation for this game, the team watched film from the teams’ Stanley Cup finals series, but outside of a clip featuring Ovechkin’s hair looking disheveled that drew some laughs, there was nothing particularly out of the ordinary about the video session. Both teams just want to get back to that stage.
But there was some deja vu Wednesday night. The puck from “The Save,” when Holtby lunged his stick across an empty expanse of net to improbably stop Alex Tuch’s shot in Game 2 of the finals, is displayed on a wall in Capital One Arena. Holtby insists “The Save” was mostly luck, but he similarly stymied the Golden Knights in the rematch. He quietly displayed his technique with several point-blank saves — and he also caught a few breaks with Vegas ringing three shots off the post. He stopped 19 of the 20 shots he saw through two periods, carrying over his playoff form.
Kuznetsov did, too. The postseason’s leading scorer, Kuznetsov notched the first goal of the game by redirecting Nicklas Backstrom’s pass from the half wall on a power play in the last minute of the first period. On a third-period power play, Backstrom scored on a similar play when Kuznetsov found him for a backdoor tap-in.
In the second period, Kuznetsov carried the puck up the ice, then abruptly stopped at the right faceoff circle and stickhandled, causing Vegas defenseman Colin Miller to wipe out trying to keep up. Kuznetsov then flung the puck to Ovechkin in the left faceoff circle for a one-timer. In the third period, the top-line duo connected again when Kuznetsov toe-dragged around Deryk Engelland before dishing the puck to a charging Ovechkin on the left. That gave Washington a two-goal cushion with less than 10 minutes left in the game.
“He was feeling it tonight, obviously,” Ovechkin said. “It’s fun to watch. It’s fun to be on the ice when he play like that. It give us a great chance to score. He have a couple good chances. He show his skill this year and last years as well.”
The playoffs were a breakout of sorts for Kuznetsov, who scored 12 goals with 20 assists in 24 games. The Capitals have ramped up his responsibilities to start the season, playing him on the penalty kill for the first time in his career. Management challenged Kuznetsov to take his game to an even higher level, perhaps putting himself in the conversation as one of the league’s best players, and through three games, he has three goals and four assists.
“It doesn’t matter how many points I get,” Kuznetsov said. “It’s just about get those team points early in the season. It’s very important. For us, we talk about have a good start and these points will be huge end of the year. About personal game, it’s always going to get points if everyone going to play right. If you play with the good players, you’re always going to get points.”
With two minutes left in the game, loud “back-to-back” chants echoed through Capital One Arena. When the final buzzer sounded, it was the Golden Knights who returned to the locker room dejected and the Capitals who again celebrated before leaving the ice.