Any NHL team would tell you that it is incredibly difficult to make it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final without acquiring a hint of luck. The Golden Knights of Vegas, settled in a city where luck can build fortunes or bust dreams in a heartbeat, have relished in the narrative that destiny is on their side.
In Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, in a contest that was filled with end-to-end action at a frenetic pace, having Lady Luck in Vegas’s corner proved to be beneficial in victory. But, in Game 2, despite outshooting the Washington Capitals 39-26, the Golden Knights could not salvage a lucky roll of the dice to tie the game, sending this evenly-matched series back to the nation’s capital tied 1-1.
From Speed to Physicality
In Game 1, speed was at the forefront of the contest. The Knights and Caps put on a skating clinic, with lots of space for players to create scoring chances. Flash forward to Game 2, and both Vegas and Washington tightened up their defensive and goaltending performances, putting on a physical, hard-hitting circus.
There were 85 total hits in Game 2, compared to 63 in Game 1. Game 2 saw the referees use their whistles to call more penalties, resulting in seven power plays and 37 total penalty minutes (there were only two power plays and eight penalty minutes handed out in Game 1).
Like a boxing match with two contrasting fighters, the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final highlighted the dichotomy between the two teams. Vegas relies on speed and using space in the neutral zone to create scoring opportunities in the attacking zone.
Washington, on the other hand, uses their size and physicality to wear down opponents with big hits while clogging up the neutral zone.
Fast starts have been integral to Vegas’s success all season long. When the Golden Knights score first, they win 83% of their games. So, when forward James Neal buried the puck bar down early in the first period to give Vegas a 1-0 lead, good fortune was with the raucous home team, as they dictated the pace and created scoring opportunities.
Catching some of that Las Vegas luck, the Capitals turned the tide on the game by exerting their physicality and utilizing their defense to limit the production of the Golden Knights’ top line of William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith. Vegas’s blue line had trouble blocking the passing lanes in their own zone, leading to goals by Lars Eller and Alexander Ovechkin.
Goaltending and Missed Opportunities Lead to Golden Knights Downfall
If there is a leading candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy in Vegas, it would be goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury has a .939 SV% with a 1.88 GAA, making him statistically the best goalie remaining in the playoffs. For the Caps to win Game 2 and make this a series, they needed Braden Holtby to make some critical saves.
Indeed, Holtby was stellar in Game 2, making big-time saves in critical moments. The highlight of his performance was a stick save he made on a hard shot by Golden Knights forward Alex Tuch, with less than two minutes to go in the third period.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) May 31, 2018
It was clear after the series-saving save by Holtby that luck was not on the Golden Knights side in Game 2.
“It was one of those games that Holtby played really well. We didn’t play our best, but we still had 39 shots and Holtby made some key saves that prevented the puck from going into the net,” said Vegas head coach Gerard Gallant after the game.
Holtby’s save marked a list of missed opportunities for Vegas in the third period. Handed a five-on-three power play early in the third, Vegas only registered four shots on net. For 10 minutes in the third period, the Golden Knights did not record a single shot on goal.
Along the boards, Washington was winning all the battles, preventing the Knights from setting up and creating scoring chances. Perhaps their less-aggressive forecheck in the third period was the first time Vegas experienced true Stanley Cup Final pressure…their only previous postseason home loss before Game 2 was to the San Jose Sharks in 2OT in the second round.
Despite the dice rolling Washington’s way tonight, the Golden Knights are confident going forward.
“I think it’s really important that we take a step back and take a deep breath, know that you’re not going to win this series in two games. You’re not going to lose the series in two games. We can go out and win games on the road. We’ve done it all playoffs,” stated Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt.
Washington finally cracked the Vegas code to tie the series. It is now a best-of-five series, and the winner of Game 3 goes on to win the Stanley Cup 70% of the time. With the evenness and hunger to win evidenced by both teams, we are in for a fortune of a Stanley Cup Final.