If the Golden Knights had one of those Ed Hardy style t-shirts that they used to sell everywhere in Las Vegas, the three words on it would say Speed. Depth. Resilience. If you put a colorful stylized knight on it fighting off an eagle and you bedazzled it a little bit, it would probably be the most popular clothing item in New Jersey this summer.
In all seriousness, those three words have defined the Golden Knights all season as they did again in Monday’s 6-4 game one victory over the Washington Capitals.
Game 1 lived up to the hype and then some, featuring four lead changes, speed and physicality and by the time 60 minutes of regulation had elapsed, the Golden Knights proved why they will be such a problem for the Capitals.
From the opening faceoff, the Golden Knights quickness strangled the Capitals.
Washington coach Barry Trotz knew the Golden Knights’ speed was a problem, especially when it came to his team’s decision making and puck movement. “We just have to do a better job of playing quicker,” Trotz said during an in-game interview.
Las Vegas dominated play and outshot Washington the first period and a half of the game.
However, Washington’s opportunism not only kept them in the game, it even earned them a lead.
The Capitals were able to stay competitive by taking advantage of the Knights aggressiveness, scoring when Las Vegas strayed way out of position. Their first period go-ahead goal resulted from Golden Knights defenders Shea Theodore and Deryk Engelland chasing the puck into the same corner and then Theodore chasing T.J. Oshie behind his own goal, a cardinal sin for defensemen.
That left no one in front of the goal including the Las Vegas forwards who were caught puck watching, instead of defending a streaking Nick Backstrom.
Surprisingly, in the face of the Golden Knights carrying the play for the first half of the game, the Capitals continued to counter punch and again took the lead on a fluky goal by Tom Wilson that resulted when Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury lost track of the puck and kicked it into his own goal just over a minute into the third period to give the Capitals a 4-3 lead.
But those three words that define the Golden Knights were prominently featured when it counted.
Trailing by a goal, the Golden Knights depth players pushed them to victory as fourth liners Tomas Nosek and Ryan Reaves combined to score the final three goals of the game (Nosek had two, one an empty netter) for the 6-4 win.
Although Reaves did benefit from a non-call on a blatant cross-check on the Golden Knights final go-ahead goal, depth and resilience have been a theme all year. Injuries forced them to play five different goaltenders during the season. Critics of the NHL and Las Vegas’ success cite the expansion draft’s relaxed rules as the reason that the Golden Knights have a deep team full of “second liners.”
Las Vegas continued to fight back even after squandering two leads and losing its leading playoff scorer for a good portion of the third period on a late hit from Capital Tom Wilson.
The Golden Knights demonstrated that they just keep coming in waves no matter what the circumstances.
Entering Game 2, the Capitals are going to have to match the Golden Knights’ speed and two key players for the Capitals are going to have to step up. While T.J. Oshie had an excellent game for the Capitals and looked visibly dangerous with the puck, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov were not as impactful.
They did each contribute an assist, but Ovechkin did not stand out physically or offensively like he does on his best nights. Kuznetsov had flashes of brilliance where he beat the Golden Knights at their own game, speed. On multiple occasions, Kuznetsov made Golden Knights players look like they were stuck in the mud as he flew by them for chances on net, but it was only in fits and starts.
In order for the Capitals to win, Kuznetsov and Ovechkin need to dominate. Kuznetsov needs to use his speed to draw more penalties and Ovechkin needs to convert those chances on the power play.
The goaltending in this series will also continue to play a major role. Fleury won his first playoff game this year where he allowed four goals or more. Of the four goals Fleury allowed, three were nearly unstoppable while the fourth was a rare fluky goal that isn’t likely to happen again.
The Golden Knights had a poor game in their defensive zone. Multiple positional breakdowns led to the Capitals “can’t miss” chances.
Braden Holtby allowed five goals for the second time in these playoffs.
Holtby’s performance was slightly more suspect. He gave up a massive rebound on a weak Engelland shot directly in front of the net which resulted in a second chance by Marchessault and then a frantic scramble which ended in Riley Smith’s second period goal.
Both goaltenders can steal a game for their teams but just by the eye test, Fleury’s performance looked more confident than Holtby.
Wednesday’s Game 2 cannot come soon enough.