With a 6-4 win in Game 1, the Vegas Golden Knights have a 1-0 series lead over the Washington Capitals in the Stanley Cup Final. Vegas has now won five games in a row and possesses a masterful 13-3 record this postseason.
However, Game 1 may not be indicative of how the rest of this series will play out.
For one thing, both goaltenders had terrible stretches throughout the contest and surrendered a combined nine goals.
For another, the game was completely wide-open, and there was plenty of sloppy play on both sides. While that makes for entertaining hockey, it’s not something either bench will be happy about, so it’s possible both teams will tighten up defensively and clean things up for Game 2.
The Knights will now aim to take a commanding 2-0 series lead with a win in Game 2 before the series shifts to Washington. Here’s what to watch for in tonight’s tilt.
Marc-Andre Fleury has been outstanding throughout the postseason, but his performance in Game 1 left a lot to be desired. At one point early in the third period he even put one into his own net, which was somewhat reminiscent of his playoff performance in 2012. However, Fleury is not his 2012 self. He proved that this season when he recorded career bests in goals-against average (2.24) and save percentage (.927). Plus, Fleury is in the midst of one of the best postseason runs by a goaltender in the salary cap era with a 1.81 goals-against average and .942 save percentage through 16 games.
Therefore, it’s safe to assume the 2018 version of Fleury will be back in net for Game 2, which will be a huge boost to the rest of the team. The fact that the Knights were able to win Game 1 even though Fleury had perhaps his worst game of the season says a lot; knowing Fleury, he’ll be ready to return the favor.
But it also says something about Washington’s defense as well as the play of Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby, who needs to be much better in Game 2 as well. Holtby has had his ups and downs throughout the playoffs, but there were a lot of issues with his play in Game 1. For example, his rebound control was often nonexistent, and his positioning and angles were way off at key moments in the game (including on Colin Miller’s soft power-play goal).
Both goalies can be better, and both goalies need to be better moving forward.
The shutdown pair
Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov did not play well in Game 1. Kuznetsov may have been noticeable with the puck, but he failed to make plays and, even when he had room, passed up multiple chances to shoot, instead reverting back to his old tendencies of trying to score on the wraparound or using the behind-the-back pass from behind the net. Neither move has worked for him in quite some time, and he appeared to abandon both in the Western Conference Final, instead driving to the front of the net and actually taking high-percentage shots. But part of his poor night can be explained by the pressure he was facing from the dynamic duo of Nate Schmidt and Brayden McNabb. That’s nothing new, as the pair effectively shut down the best players on the Sharks and Jets in the previous two rounds, but it’s something that will need to continue in order for the Knights to have success. Ovechkin wasn’t a real factor in the game, but you can be sure Barry Trotz will try to make some adjustments to get all of his top players, including Ovechkin, more involved. The Knights’ play in the neutral zone prevented countless breakout attempts by the Capitals, and the combination of that neutral-zone pressure and the continued harassment by Schmidt and McNabb will be keys to limiting the top line, which accounted for just one of Washington’s four goals Monday night.
Line mismatches and the role of the middle sixes
Though it’s somewhat of a case of comparing apples to oranges, it was obvious that Vegas’ first and fourth lines were its most effective in Game 1, whereas Washington got the best performances out of its second and third lines. The difference between the teams’ fourth-line trios was especially glaring. Not only did Ryan Reaves, Tomas Nosek and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare account for 50 percent of Vegas’ offense at the end of the night, they also got sustained pressure in the offensive zone, generated chances consistently and dominated possession in limited ice time, finishing with 5v5 Corsi For percentages of 69.23, 74.19 and 76, respectively.
On the flip side, Jay Beagle, Chandler Stephenson and Devante Smith-Pelly all had miserable nights. Failed clears by Stephenson and Smith-Pelly led directly to two goals for the Golden Knights (Miller’s on the power play and Nosek’s game-winner, respectively), and the line as a whole had a disastrous performance. Beagle, Stephenson and Smith-Pelly finished with 5v5 Corsi For percentages of 27.27, 22.22 and 22.22, respectively.
It was the Capitals’ middle six that stepped up in Game 1, with T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom having excellent performances. The third line also played very well, though Andre Burakovsky’s indecision with the puck led to some wasted possession for the Capitals. That being said, Brett Connolly had one of his best games of the playoffs, and his game-tying goal in the first period turned things around for Washington.
By contrast, Vegas’ middle-six forwards did not perform well and were not effective. At some point in the game Gerard Gallant put David Perron back on the second line, but neither line played well. In fact, James Neal finished with a 5v5 Corsi For percentage of 37.04, which was the highest among all of Vegas’ middle-six forwards. That is not going to cut it; Vegas needs a lot more from those forwards, especially Neal, Perron, Erik Haula and Alex Tuch.
Game 1 featured several controversial plays. Tom Wilson’s hit on Jonathan Marchessault was one. Reaves’ cross-check on John Carlson that led directly to his game-tying goal was another. Oshie was frustrated with Deryk Engelland’s cross-checking and slashing, and Perron left the bench to go after Ovechkin in response to Wilson’s hit. All of these, among others, have collectively stirred the pot that could overflow in tonight’s contest.
It’s certainly possible the series could reach a boiling point early on if things get ugly, and we might even see Reaves or possibly Engelland drop the gloves. Wilson likely would be happy to oblige, especially in response to Engelland’s actions against Oshie. While that’s part of playoff hockey, it doesn’t mean the Capitals are happy about it. It also doesn’t mean the Capitals are happy about the non-call or that the Knights are happy with the league’s decision to not review Wilson’s hit.
Many see the hit as a predatory play, one that was worthy of league attention or at least more than the interference penalty Wilson was assessed after the play. The league decided not to look at the hit, likely because Marchessault had just gotten rid of the puck (even though the hit was late).
Also, many adamantly object to the non-call that turned out to be the turning point of Game 1. Most notably, NBC’s Mike Millbury has labeled it as “unforgivable” since it was at the center of the play, in the crease and led directly to a game-changing goal.
At the end of the day, all of this adds up to pent-up frustration across the board. Neither team can afford to risk taking penalties considering the magnitude of every play in the Stanley Cup Final. However, the significance of the game only intensifies the emotion, which may further contribute to the already-stewing bad blood. While an actual fight would be crowd-rousing, an ill-timed fight can lead to massive momentum swings, which makes it even harder to predict how things will play out. It will be interesting to see how these teams handle everything or if the physical play will get out of control at some point during the game.
Ice, ice, maybe?
It was once said that hockey wouldn’t work in Vegas. While the Golden Knights have gone above and beyond to prove otherwise, there are some realistic concerns with playing hockey in the desert at this time of year. In fact, it was obvious that the conditions of the ice were a legitimate issue Monday night. There were multiple delays as ice crews had to repair large patches of ice using shovels and even a fire extinguisher, which is not a typical sight in NHL hockey.
Every arena has trouble managing ice conditions at this time of year, but it seemed like the problems at T-Mobile Arena were more extreme than usual. It’s unclear if it’s something that can be addressed for tonight’s game, but it could continue to have an effect on the game. While both teams have to play on the same ice surface, choppy ice definitely favors the Knights since it slows down and inhibits Washington’s skill game.
How to Watch
Time: 5 p.m. PT
TV: NBC Sports Network
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM/1340 AM