The Washington Capitals dropped game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, 6-4, to the Vegas Golden Knights on Monday night at T-Mobile Arena. For the Caps, this was their third straight loss to Vegas this season, with the last two coming in games where Washington relinquished a third period one goal lead.
Game 2 is Wednesday night from Sin City and the Capitals will be looking to play much better and even this series up heading back to Washington for game three on Saturday night at Capital One Arena.
After digesting the loss, what follows are nine thoughts and analysis after one tilt.
Clean up on Aisle Three! – The Caps lost this game in one particular area of the ice, the defensive zone. Washington had, by far, their worst defensive performance of the post season. There were too many turnovers and blown coverages. Pucks were bouncing over players sticks and instead of doing the safe thing and making sure they cleared pucks out of harms way, the Capitals allowed Vegas to get in deep for five goals just to the left of Braden Holtby (28 saves). The biggest turnover of the night was clearly the Devante Smith-Pelly one up the right wing boards that Shea Theodore kept in the offensive zone and fed to Tomas Nosek for the game winning tally with 10:16 remaining. DSP needed to either go high glass there or bank it hard off the boards and, at worst, take an icing. John Carlson and Michal Kempny were the duo that struggled the most on the back end. Those guys both need to be harder on the puck or the man to prevent these layups that the Golden Knights feasted on in their game one triumph.
Somebody Get Me Some Ice – The ice was horrible at T-Mobile in 90 plus degree weather in the desert, but the Golden Knights had to deal with the same sheet. The referees and linesmen were constantly having to fix patches of the playing surface throughout the evening and with temperatures even higher on Wednesday, I don’t see how the ice will be better. Matt Niskanen told me the ice was terrible or they didn’t freeze the pucks, or both, afterwards. Vegas was the team that took advantage of the issue better, by using their quickness to pressure the Capitals into mishandling the biscuit more often. In game two, Niskanen said the best thing for Washington to do is simplify their game to make the bad ice less of a problem. Passes have to happen quicker and be harder to prevent the turnover fest we saw in game one.
Four Score – Washington’s offense was pretty good in this affair and if you score four times, you should win. The line of Jakub Vrana, Nicklas Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie was the best for Washington. The Osh Babe had two gorgeous assists, to Backy and Carlson, for the second and third Capitals goals, respectively. Vrana and Oshie made life difficult for Vegas on the boards using their speed and tenacity to make their opponents uncomfortable in their own end. Also, Backstrom finally looked closer to the dominant guy we saw in games two and three of the Penguins series, so clearly his right-hand injury is not as much of an issue. This line was one of the big positives in game one and Coach Barry Trotz will be riding this trio a lot on Wednesday. Brett Connolly had a great tip in for the first Caps marker off of a Kempny point shot and Tom Wilson scored on a tipped Alex Ovechkin attempt just 1:10 into period three. The Capitals dented long time nemesis, Marc Andre-Fleury, for four tallies and that was done via a lot of crashing the cage and net presence. Washington must keep that mentality up in game two.
Dynamic Duo– As much as the Caps struggled in their own end, the pair of Dmitry Orlov and Niskanen was plus two when on the ice together in game one. Orlov was the best defensemen for his club and his skating and passing ability is a great counter to Vegas’ heavy forecheck pressure game. Number nine created a lot of scoring chances for the Capitals and he had eight shot attempts. Both played over 24 minutes and will be counted on a ton in game two, like the Backstrom line.
Bad Zebras – The officiating of Marc Joannette and Wes McCauley was an absolute disgrace in game one. The game tying goal in period three from Ryan Reaves came after a blatant cross check of Carlson and Niskanen said afterwards that should have absolutely been a penalty and that if Andre Burakovsky’s penalty in period one was going to be called, then the Reaves hit was way worse and should’ve been whistled. Caps Coach Barry Trotz stated after the game, “I thought we were going on a power play there before their fourth goal.” The impartial former NHL player now turned analyst, Aaron Ward, had a big issue with the missed cross check, but also cited Derek Engelland for “lumberjacking” the whole game as well as an Alex Tuch elbow to the head of Orlov. The zebras also missed too many men on the ice during the Wilson-Jonathan Marchessault incident. Ward was adamant that had the referees huddled on the Reaves goal and called the cross check then they wouldn’t have had to huddle on the Wilson hit because the frustration level wouldn’t have been where it was at. The Capitals were clearly incensed with the lack of calls and Willy took it a little too far with the interference on #81, but again, if the referees call the game correctly, that doesn’t happen. I also thought the linesmen had a bad outing as the icing calls were not consistent. The NHL Supervisor of Officiating needs to call this crew in and reprimand them for overshadowing and becoming too much of a factor in a huge game. Unacceptable! Kelly Sutherland and Chris Rooney will officiate game two, so hopefully the zebras have a better performance.
Not So Gr8 – Ovechkin started the first and second periods and, in both frames, the Capitals came out flat, prompting coach Trotz to start the Backstrom line for period three. Ovi’s first shift of the final frame was his best and his shot was tipped home by Willy to give the Caps a brief third period lead. For the game, Alex only had five shot attempts in 19:09 of ice time. He had four hits, as Washington is trying to be more physical to negate the speed of the Golden Knights, but he didn’t skate well or handle the disc cleanly most of the night. If the Capitals are going to win this series, Ovechkin needs to be a lot better.
Sticking to their Game Plan – Vegas, as I stated in my series preview blog on Sunday, is no fluke. That team plays hard, smart, and sticks to their system. Coach Gerard Gallant pretty much rolled his defensive pairs and forward lines with no Golden Knight blue liner logging more than 20:36 (William Karlsson). Their fourth trio only played just under 10 minutes together, but they dominated the Caps when on the ice. Sure, they got away with some mayhem that should’ve been penalties, but they took advantage of the ignoring of the rulebook by the guys in stripes and scored three times. Nosek had two tallies, with the last being an empty net goal. Both he and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare were plus three in game one and a big reason why Vegas was victorious. On the blue line, Theodore led the way with 21:52, which is a pretty low total. The Golden Knights also scored on their only power play, a point shot from Colin Miller that went through traffic and by Holtby. Vegas is playing with confidence and is now 7-1 on home ice in these playoffs. Their crowd was a big factor in game one – whenever the Knights fell behind, the fans picked up their noise level and it seemed to bring the team energy. T-Mobile arena is loud and boisterous, and that clearly helps their club.
Urgency – The Caps have their work cut out for them in game two. They must play with more urgency to start each period and after they light the lamp, especially since Vegas scored goals on their very next shot after the Caps took their two leads in this affair. Vegas is quicker, but the Capitals had some breakouts that exposed them on the back end for odd man chances. Washington must continue to do that on Wednesday, but most important is puck management and better coverage in their own end. The things to be encouraged by are the strong performance of Backstrom’s line and the Orlov-Niskanen duo. The Caps played a very poor game on Monday, but still had the lead in the final frame, so that is another positive. They need more from Ovechkin and his line, although I thought Evgeny Kuznetsov had a pretty good outing in 19:26 of action. Based on Tuesday’s practice, the Capitals will have the same lineup, but they just need to play much better and execute the game plan.
Notes: The Caps won the shot attempt battle, 68-67, via a 30-23 third period advantage. The first period was not good for Washington, they were out attempted, 25-18 and were fortunate to be tied after 20 minutes…the face-off battle was won by Vegas, 33-31, but Jay Beagle went 11-5. The Caps need to win more draws so they can have more possession time…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 25:03…both teams only had one power play. Vegas tallied on theirs while the Caps hit the post on their attempt…Washington had 38 hits to 25 for the Golden Knights. Brooks Orpik led the Capitals with nine.