If you did not watch last Monday’s scintillating Stanley Cup Finals opener between Washington and Vegas, boy did you miss a lot. There were not only goals galore, but also so many lead changes, so much ludicrously pompous pageantry that only Las Vegas could pull off, and there was plenty of controversy to go along with it. How Medieval Times is not receiving any royalties from this, I will never know. Let’s just put the pretty pictures on this blog to better describe what happened.
But along with the game itself, I was at the viewing party at Capital One Arena as well. Man, I can not tell you enough how emotional that building was before puck drop. Once the end of the introductory video was played like it would have been if Game 1 was played in DC instead of Vegas, the response was so loud that it caused an echo-chamber between my eardrums. I’m not ashamed to say that I welled up a bit watching this video.
The only other time I ever heard that as consistently as last Monday was Ohio State-Penn State 2005. That noise was generated by over 110,000 people. This was generated by 10,000-15,000 people inside a cavernous hockey arena.
Both crowds had that level of anticipation on their respective nights. For Penn State, they were suffering through multiple years of losing records and irrelevance. That win put them back to the top and of National prominence at the time. For the Capitals, all the demons were hoped to be shaken off. The last time they were in the Stanley Cup final, they got swept by one of the greatest hockey franchises in the modern era in Steve Yzerman’s and Scotty Bowman’s Detroit Red Wings. This time around, they are facing an expansion team.
But as we all should know weeks ago, this isn’t any expansion team. These are a Vegas Golden Knights team that is at its best when they use their top line to push the tempo to ludicrous speed with every rush. They use the rest of their forward lines to hoooooooooooound the defense…and Connor Hellebuyk…and now maaaaaaaaybe Braden Holtby (see the fifth goal as the perfect example) on the fore check. Every one of their defensemen have bare minimum skills when it comes to mobility, puck retention in the offensive zone and releasing a deadly shot towards goal. Most importantly, they have that man Marc-Andre Fleury playing like it’s 2009 all over again.
But last Monday, Fleury actually played like it was the 2012 Flyers series all over again, as evidenced by the Tom Wilson goal where he basically kicked it in his own net. The problem for Washington was that they just couldn’t dictate the tempo of the hockey game at all. With a now 7-1 win-loss record at home, Vegas will take advantage of that every time.
All postseason, Washington has been able to use their pressure within the opposition zone and along the neutral zone to slow down teams offensively. It has been a Barry Trotz staple throughout the entirety of his tenure and it has been needed now more than ever now that his roster is not full of youngsters across the board. Now that Michael Kempny has been inserted into the lineup and enough young prospects are in the roster to put out the best forward lines possible, the game plan has been able to work to as great of a T as we have seen all season long.
That being said, Washington’s strengths do not include playing firewagon hockey anymore. That is perfectly evidenced by the fact that at even strength in the regular season, the Capitals finished tied for 20th in the NHL at pace with a combined 113.2 score-adjusted shot attempts per hour. In the postseason, it has only improved to just 114.1 attempts per hour, but that still has them sitting 10th out of the 16th playoff teams.
As for Vegas, they can play with any style in any way possible: especially if Fleury is playing this good. Why they were only 17th in the league at pace in the regular season, their tempo skyrocketed to the tune of 119.2 shot attempts per hour. Amazingly, that is good for just 5th best in the postseason, but it should be fitting to note that two of the teams better than Vegas are either former Golden Knights postseason opponents (San Jose and Winnipeg) or within the Western Conference as well (Nashville and Anaheim).
Thus, even though last night’s game turned out to be as close as you can imagine in almost ever statistical category, Vegas won due to the fact that the pace of play finished at a rate of 133.55 score-adjusted attempts per hour at even strength. That is downright ludicrous! The last time Washington played at such a pace was Game 2 of the Penguins series. The Capitals might have won that game, but this was at a time that Braden Holtby was at his best and that Matt Murray turned out to be consistently mediocre Matt Murray all 2017-18.
Now, Holtby is sitting with a 90.8% save percentage since the start of the Conference Finals. Yes, my friends, this includes the two shootouts he had in Games 6 and 7. It’s just been too long now since we’ve seen Holtby DOMINATE at a Vezina Trophy level like he did in 2014-15 or put the franchise on his back like he did in 2012. This may sound like a broken record now, but last Monday is just further evidence of me worrying that Holtby is just no longer elite anymore, nor can it ever be considered smart to build a team around him saving your bacon for the full 82-games in any more regular seasons with him as the starter.
That said, Washington hasn’t been afraid to generate offense and they were able to get the best of Fleury and Vegas’ “vaunted” defense. They can go toe-to-toe with the upstarts and they were able to put a good account of themselves in a building where others have looked bluntly pathetic at times. As long as this team doesn’t get down on themselves mid-game, like they have done in postseasons past, Washington should be fine for tonight. Because if they are fine, watch out for Game 2 to be more like Empire Strikes Back more so than Hangover 2.
Lastly, I have to talk about the Wilson hit on Jonathan Marchessault. And call me biased, but I find it a complete struggle to ever not tie that to the Ryan Reeves cross-check no call that led to Vegas 4, Washington 4. Simply put, it’s nothing short of an unforgiveable disgrace that the referees not only missed that Reeves penalty, but also not even huddle up to discuss it.
Meanwhile, they decided to have a meeting of the minds instead on the Wilson hit on Marchessault. Yes, the Wilson hit deserved to be a penalty because he followed through HARD on a Golden Knights player that was without the puck for more than a second. But I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again. Fighting absolutely will continue to happen and fans and players will continue to cry with ragaholic fury towards anyone that wants it banned solely because referees do the absolute worst job at policing the game correctly EVERY TIME. Especially in the Stanley Cup final, that can’t be acceptable.
I can not state enough how loud and how concensous Capital One Arena cheered wildly on the Wilson hit as if to scream “Karma [W]itch!” And I can promise you, you will not find a single Capitals fan that did that that will ever feel any regrets.
Now the league office have to face the facts that this is the second straight Championship series where a controversial goal could decide the champion of the NHL. That should be a pathetic disgrace if they ever want to think about developing the game further than the relatively small base than they have right now. Instead, they are like FIFA in stating that controversy is what sells the sport too. I’m sorry, but I refuse to teach future generations how to live life. And since the NHL values building life long lessons through the game, apparently, you would think that they will feel complete embarrassment through both parts of this episode. Too bad they can’t.