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Golden Knights 5, Capitals 3: 5 things we learned from a spirited victory against the reigning champs

After ending their most recent road trip with a loss to the Edmonton Oilers, the Vegas Golden Knights returned to action Tuesday night against the team that defeated them in four out of five games to win the Stanley Cup last summer.

The Washington Capitals.

Vegas had already squared off against Washington once this season — a 5-2 loss in Capital One Arena back in October. However, Tuesday night’s contest seemed just a tad more important than their meeting in Washington. Not only were both teams looking to get back on track after losing one-score games over the weekend, but they did so in the building that saw Washington won its first-ever Stanley Cup (and Vegas’ unprecedented inaugural season end just a few games prematurely).

It was a back-and-forth affair as both teams traded goals in the first period. Washington ended up taking a 2-1 lead midway through the middle third when Alex Ovechkin potted his 20th goal of the season, but Vegas came storming back early in the final frame, scoring two goals in a matter of just 16 seconds. Jakub Vrana, who scored the Capitals’ first goal of the night, found twine again midway through the third to tie the game up once more. However, a big-time effort from former Capital Nate Schmidt ended up winning the game for Vegas with just 1:25 remaining in regulation, and his empty-net tally was just the perfect cherry on top.

Game physical from start to finish

This game had a playoff-like feel to it from the very get-go. Players from both sides were dishing out massive hits throughout the contest, and it didn’t take long before the tempo was set — hit or be hit became the name of the game.

At the end of the night, both teams combined for a ridiculous 81 hits (41 for Vegas, 40 for Washington), and there were some enormous collisions that turned out to be momentum-shifters — Ovechkin’s open-ice hit on Tomas Nosek immediately comes to mind.

But Ovechkin’s hit on Nosek won’t be the topic of conversation amongst hockey pundits over the next couple days. The talk of the NHL world will undoubtedly be regarding the on-ice war between Vegas’ Ryan Reaves and Washington’s Tom Wilson.

The heated clash between two of the NHL’s biggest hitters began early on when Reaves attempted to put a lick on Wilson in the defensive zone. However, it was Wilson who got the better of Reaves in this encounter, trucking the 225-pound winger to the ice along the half-boards.

Of course, this wasn’t the only time the two convened. Later on in the first period, Reaves settled the score with Wilson when he sent the 24-year-old heavyweight flying after attempting a shot on net.

Late in the second period, though, both Reaves and Wilson were sent to the locker room early (and for very different reasons).

After attempting to feed the puck to defenseman Madison Bowey at the blue line, Wilson took a gigantic hit from Reaves, who Wilson had no clue was coming. Reaves sent Wilson off of his feet, knocking his helmet off in the process, and Wilson fell face-first to the ice before eventually being helped to the locker room by teammates. Wilson did not return to the game and Reaves was assessed a game misconduct for the hit.

“It’s a clean hit. There is nothing wrong with the hit,” said Knights head coach Gerard Gallant after the game. “Unfortunately, a player got hurt, but it was a clean hit.”

Naturally, Capitals head coach Todd Reirden had a different opinion on Reaves’ hit.

“Reaves targeted him the entire game,” said Reirden. “You could hear it on every faceoff, you could hear the things that were being said. It’s a blindside hit where a guy, an unsuspecting player, hits his head on the ice. That’s disappointing. You can put two and two together, but he targeted him the entire game, so you can figure that out from there.”

Fourth line impactful in all three zones

Reaves, a vital member of Vegas’ dynamic fourth line, ended up receiving a little under 11 minutes of ice time against the Capitals, and it’s very likely that he would have eclipsed the 15-minute mark for just the third time this season had he not been given the thumb late in the second period.

However, regardless of whether Reaves was on the ice or hitting the showers early, Vegas’ fourth line made a pretty large impact — a pattern that’s become quite familiar as of late.

Following Reaves’ early exit from the contest, fourth-line center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare scored his fourth goal of the season when he redirected a Brayden McNabb point wrister past Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby to tie the game early in the third period. Linemate William Carrier was also involved on the play, impeding Holtby’s vision to allow the deflected puck to find its way into the net.

Though the fourth line’s possession numbers weren’t all that flattering, Gerard Gallant trusted the trio of Carrier, Bellemare and Reaves to shut down Washington’s physical top line. For the most part, they succeeded.

“You look at that top line of theirs and it’s pretty big and physical, so I wanted to match up our guys with those guys and they did an excellent job,” said Gallant. “With the size and strength like we’ve got, our so-called fourth line has been excellent all year long. They deserved the challenged and they rose to the challenge and did a good job.”

Penalty kill key in victory

The game’s biggest shift in momentum came immediately after Reaves was ejected for his hit on Wilson. As a result, Vegas was assessed a five-minute major with a little over four minutes to play in the second period. Washington was given a golden opportunity to extend its lead and put Vegas away for good, but the Golden Knights’ penalty kill stepped up and successfully killed off the entire quarter-period power play.

“That is a lethal power play there,” said Cody Eakin, who scored his 11th goal of the season Tuesday night. “I think we did a really good job forcing pressure down ice and kind of rattling them. When they got into the zone, they were kind of tired or mismatched or not enough guys on the rush. That was big for us, momentum-wise. Big for our penalty kill and big for our team.”

In close to 11 minutes of time shorthanded, the Knights managed to kill off all four of Washington’s power plays, allowing just three (!) shots on goal during that span. Against the NHL’s seventh-ranked power play, that’s quite an impressive feat.

Through 29 games, the Golden Knights’ PK is ranked third in the NHL with a fantastic 84.9 penalty-kill percentage. Only the Arizona Coyotes (90.0) and San Jose Sharks (85.5) have been more successful on the penalty kill this season.

Lindberg fills in nicely for Pacioretty

Not present at either of Vegas’ last two practices was winger Max Pacioretty (illness), who has been on a tear as of late, logging eight goals and 13 points in his last 10 games. Pacioretty was a game-time decision ahead of Tuesday night’s tilt, but ultimately could not suit up against Washington.

Filling in for Pacioretty on Vegas’ second line was winger Oscar Lindberg, who has been in and out of the lineup throughout his tenure as a Golden Knight. Despite his sporadic usage, though, Lindberg played about as well as one could’ve hoped, picking up a pair of assists (both of which being his first points of the season) and earning solid minutes on the second power play unit.

Impressively, the Golden Knights handily out-chanced Washington 6-1 with Lindberg on the ice at 5-on-5 — even more admirable when taking his 28.57 offensive zone faceoff percentage into account.

Lindberg’s performance likely isn’t one that makes him irreplaceable in the lineup once Pacioretty returns, but it’s certainly encouraging to see him produce in such a pivotal matchup.

Schmidt delivers in clutch time

Not only was Tuesday night’s contest an opportunity for Vegas to get revenge on the team that beat them in the Stanley Cup Final, but it was also an opportunity for defenseman Nate Schmidt to prove his worth against the team that left him exposed in the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft.

In poetic fashion, Schmidt scored the game-winner on the power play with just 1:24 remaining in regulation, beating Holtby cleanly with a wicked wrister from the high slot.

Unsurprisingly, Schmidt was feeling pretty good about his first goal of the season in the locker room.

“Our power play hadn’t done diddly squat really all night,” said Schmidt, laughing. “It was just something Shea [Theodore] and I talked a little bit about that if I could get some more speed and push them back a little bit, hopefully it would open up something for someone else. Luckily it opened up a little bit for myself there. It felt good, it really did.”

One goal wasn’t enough for the 27-year-old blueliner, though. Of course, he had to bury the empty-netter from downtown to add the icing on the cake.

Advanced statistics courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.