LAS VEGAS — Pause for a second, and embrace the absurdity of it all. The pregame spectacle at T-Mobile Arena is unlike anything outside of, say, a Cher show on the Strip if it were injected with medieval theater and more than a small amount of swordplay. “Everyone’s kind of sick of all the hoopla,” Washington Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik said roughly three hours before the puck dropped for the Stanley Cup finals. Little did he know he had not yet seen even a fraction of what this town has to offer in terms of showmanship.
There should be a deep breath and a small smile, though, for what Monday represented, regardless of the theatrics: an appreciation for the Washington Capitals’ first appearance in the Stanley Cup finals in 20 years.
Enjoy it? Okay, that’s enough. Let go of that hug, because this is going to be a real hockey series, likely a long one. And for the Capitals to win it, they’re not going to get away with games played in the wild style of the opener. It’s who they once were. It’s no longer who they are. That’s why they’re here.
Part of that is because these Vegas Golden Knights must be acknowledged as a real powerhouse at this point. The 6-4 decision they hung on the Capitals in Game 1 was their 13th win in 16 postseason games. That’s no longer a small sample size, and this is no fluke. That’s a steamroller producing a staggering stat.
“You can’t take a breath,” goalie Braden Holtby said.
It’s how the Golden Knights play, so cut any notion that this is “just an expansion team.” Vegas is a force. Getting through the Golden Knights to win what would be Washington’s first Stanley Cup would be hard-earned regardless of the opponent’s pedigree or lack thereof.
The path for the Capitals will be difficult enough if they play the right way, the way that has come to define them over the past two months. And that wasn’t the style that showed up on Memorial Day to start the final series of the season. This was insane, back-and-forth stuff, the kind of style the Capitals dismissed long ago. On Monday, they lost it on Tomas Nosek’s goal midway through the third period. But even if they had managed to squeeze through the tiebreaker instead of Vegas — even if Lars Eller had converted into an open net in the final minute, when the Capitals were using the extra attacker — it’s not sustainable. Not in February. And certainly not in a series that will extend into June.
“I don’t think we played very good tonight,” said forward Brett Connolly, who scored Washington’s first goal. “We didn’t find our game tonight.”
The easy thing to say about the old Capitals is that if they didn’t find their game with these stakes, how will they find it Wednesday night in Game 2? But exhale, and recall what this version of the Capitals has shown over the past six weeks. They lost Game 1 (and Game 2) against Columbus in the first round, and won. They lost Game 1 against Pittsburgh in the second round, and won. They trailed Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference finals after five games, and won.
They have earned, of all things, trust.
“I think next game is going to be different, and all the nervousness, all the bad thing goes away in this game,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “We just have to forget about it and bounce back next one.”
Some instructions on how to do that. Here are the goals allowed by the Capitals in the 12 games they won en route to the finals, in chronological order: two, one, three, three, one, three, three, one, two, two, zero, zero. That’s an average of 1.75 in those dozen wins. You’ll notice, too, a trend later in the playoffs: just one goal allowed in the overtime victory that sealed the second-round series against Pittsburgh, then a pair of shutouts to close out Tampa Bay and win the East.
In that series against the Lightning, the Capitals essentially completed a transformation from their old playoff selves. Now, to be fair, we’re years removed from the seasons when Alexander Semin and Mike Green joined Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom and defined the Caps with their offensive skill. But in those days, when the playoffs rolled around, it still felt like the Capitals were waiting around to get on the power play, where they were deadly. That’s a tough way to win in the postseason, when referees lock their whistles in drawers for periods at a time.
In the Eastern Conference finals, the team playing the part of the old Capitals was Tampa Bay. It was telling after Game 7 — a 4-0 Washington win — that Lightning star Steven Stamkos drew the following conclusion: “The team that won the series probably had the more consistent play five-on-five.”
That is, by now, who the Capitals are: a solid, responsible, structured team that works for its chances. Washington has scored more five-on-five goals than any team in the playoffs, more than two per game, and that’s how all four came Monday night. They don’t solely thrive in transition — giving up a chance in hopes of turning it back up the ice, an opportunity the other way.
“You don’t want to be trading chances with any team,” Connolly said, and it’s true. Vegas’s top line — led by 43-goal scorer William Karlsson — is fearsome. Going up and down with those guys, night after night, would be deadly.
But there’s not a single Capital who believes that will continue.
“I’m confident we have another level,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “To me, that’s exciting.”
This isn’t a panic point. Far from it. These Capitals have responded all postseason, and they even bounced back in this game — from a shaky opening 10 minutes, from falling behind in an off-the-chain building, from trailing again early in the second period. They were tied after two. They led 4-3 in the third. If they make the adjustments they have made throughout the postseason, they’ll be fine.
So settle in. Enjoy this time, because we all know how infrequently it arrives. The Capitals can’t and won’t win the Stanley Cup the way they played Monday. The solace: This group has earned the right to be trusted that it will respond. Game 2 is Wednesday night. The style and substance should both be different.