The Stanley Cup Finals are tied at one game apiece.
The difference between a tied series and a 2-0 Las Vegas Golden Knights lead may have come down to the red and white paddle of Braden Holtby’s CCM goal stick.
With exactly two minutes left in regulation and the Capitals barely defending their one-goal lead, the puck careened awkwardly off a Shea Theodore dump and landed right on Cody Eakin’s waiting stick.
Eakin dished the puck across the slot to Alex Tuch for what looked like a sure tying goal before Holtby made what many are saying is the save of his career. Holtby dove across the goal mouth to stymie Tuch with the paddle of his stick.
The look of absolute disbelief on Alex Ovechkin’s face told the whole story as he watched his teammate make the save of a lifetime.
Two minutes later the clock would run out and the Capitals would earn the franchise’s first Stanley Cup Final win by a score of 3-2, tying the series at one game apiece.
Holtby’s save came at the end of a third period where the Golden Knights outshot Washington 15-6 as they tried desperately to tie the game. But the story of this season’s Capitals, especially lately, is not the dominating offensive juggernaut of the past few years, but an opportunistic team with timely scoring and goaltending.
It’s the same way Washington won game seven of the Eastern Conference Finals.
In that game, the Capitals jumped out to an unexpected one-goal lead thanks to Ovechkin and then somehow maintained that advantage through the first half of the game that saw the Tampa Bay Lightning put Holtby under siege. Somehow, Washington extended their lead and by then the frustration had set in for the Lightning.
Wednesday night, the Capitals did exactly what they needed to do to beat Las Vegas in their own building, which had only been done one other time this playoff season by the San Jose Sharks.
The Capitals continued to take advantage of the Golden Knights aggressiveness, scoring on positional errors and on the power play while doing just enough defensively for Holtby to steal the game.
Lars Eller’s game tying goal at the end of the first period is the perfect example.
After Erik Haula fell on a draw in the Las Vegas zone with the two teams playing four on four, Andre Burakovsky quickly collected the puck and slid it to Michal Kempny at the far point, who was wide-open with Haula struggling to get back to his feet.
Kempny faked the shot and passed the puck to a wide-open Eller who scored easily.
The Capitals quickly took advantage of a defensive miscue that has been rare for the Golden Knights (until the finals.)
The Capitals took the lead 5:38 into the second period on a power-play goal by Ovechkin following an undisciplined cross-checking penalty by Tuch in front of the Capitals goal.
That was one of only two Capitals power play opportunities compared to five for Las Vegas.
Washington made the best of it.
The Capitals pulled ahead by two on another Golden Knights breakdown.
Leading into that goal, all three Las Vegas forwards found themselves on the same side of the ice, leaving a wide-open Eller in the neutral zone.
That’s when Burakovsky alertly passed across the ice to Eller who had an expanse of open ice ahead of him. He slid the puck to Brooks Orpik who benefited from a timely deflection to score his first goal in 220 games.
In addition to the Golden Knights forwards over pursuing on the forecheck, defenseman Derek Engelland made a half-hearted pinch attempt that allowed the pass to be made to Eller and caught multiple Las Vegas players out of position.
Playing aggressively to tie the game is not unexpected from the Golden Knights, but with nearly half the game remaining and carrying the play, Las Vegas could’ve played a little smarter, something that has lacked for the team in the first two games of the series.
Even though the Golden Knights would pull within one on a seeing-eye shot by Shea Theodore, the Capitals prevailed on a game stolen by Holtby.
Holtby eclipsed his mediocre game one performance with a sterling game Wednesday.
The Capitals were credited with keeping Las Vegas shots to the outside of the offensive zone and not allowing the Golden Knights their usual offensive flow.
That may have been the case at even strength, but the Capitals had to kill off an extended five-on-three in the third period after penalties by Eller and series villain Tom Wilson.
Holtby made seven saves, many from point-blank range during that two-minute barrage to preserve the win.
While we’re on the subject of penalties and refereeing, both teams have committed a number of undisciplined penalties in the series.
While Ryan Reaves was a hero in game 1, he’s trending the way of the goat (not the good kind) for the rest of the finals. Reaves’ punch to the face of Wilson that resulted in a roughing penalty may have been satisfying, but it was also stupid.
The Capitals did not score on the ensuing power play, but that wasn’t the case on Tuch’s cross-checking penalty in front of the net earlier in the second period. That did have a major impact on the game because it led to Ovechkin’s go-head goal. In a game where Las Vegas lost by a single goal that lack of discipline decided the game.
On the other side of the ice, Wilson’s antics may likely end in the same result. Wilson did shy away from some opportunities to antagonize his opponents as the NBC crew pointed out in the first period, but sooner or later, a stupid penalty will come back to bite the Capitals.
This is especially true when the refereeing is so inconsistent. It’s not just cheap shots that can hurt a team, but retaliations. In this series, especially in game 2, the officials did not hesitate to take two players to the box and negate any advantage for either team. Antics from Reaves and Wilson may cost their team a power play opportunity in the future.
Evgeny Kuznetsov’s injury will obviously be a major factor for the rest of the series. As of now, his status for Saturday’s game 3 is uncertain. Even if he does return, will he be at full strength?
Kuznetsov’s speed is important to counter the team speed of the Golden Knights and game 3 showed how important it is for the Capitals best players to show up. With Ovechkin heating up and Holtby on fire, Kuznetsov’s presence and effectiveness could make the difference in what is turning out to be a far more even series than I thought it would be.