Amid the magic shows and music concerts, murder mysteries and bald blue men, the city of Las Vegas has evidently added absurdist theater to its roster of resident headliners. While not quite Edward Albee, I’ll be damned if what unfolded Monday evening inside T-Mobile Arena doesn’t grade as the peak of insanity during this battle for the 2018 Stanley Cup. Or perhaps not. The playbill guarantees at least three additional acts, plenty of time leftover for more fun and games.
Let us summarize several basic plot points: The Golden Knights, nothing but a nascent band of front-office flaks and greaseboard names last Memorial Day, snatched a 1-0 series lead against the Capitals with a 6-4 victory, the highest-scoring Cup Final opener since 2010. They received two goals from their supersonic top line and three from their workmanlike bottom trio, capped by an empty-netter that winger Tomas Nosek flicked with all the nonchalance of a putt-putt pro. Ten minutes earlier, the 25-year-old had slithered next to Washington’s far post and clubbed defenseman Shea Theodore’s sublime backdoor feed for the eventual winner. He celebrated by charging toward the glass, then whirled around and beckoned for everyone else to join.
Take a deep breath, Las Vegas. And now scream your lungs raw.
As an entire city rejoiced over its latest bout of good fortune, Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly returned to the bench and bashed his stick against the railing. It had been his failed clear that allowed Theodore open room to operate along the left faceoff circle, his twig that he had chucked in frustration after Nosek’s strike. But that is simply how things went for Washington. Choppy ice conditions kept causing pucks to wobble, a product of 90-degree temperatures outside (and not hot air wheezed by blowhards whining about an expansion team’s success). Enough shots pinged off posts to form the soundtrack of a casino slot machine. A yawning net and loose puck greeted center Lars Eller with less than a minute left … until Golden Knights defenseman Brayden McNabb interfered at the last possible moment.
It was heart-attack hockey like many predicted, no matter on which side of history your rooting interests are aligned: A Stanley Cup champion less than 12 months after its team assembled in the expansion draft, or a title-starved town seeking catharsis on the burly shoulders of its greatest athlete ever. It was Lil Jon serenading thousands in the plaza beneath the New York-New York roller coaster, and another delightfully hokey pregame spectacle featuring computerized flaming arrows, and ringside announcer Michael Buffer telling fans that it was time to RUMMMMMBLLLLLE, as though they hadn’t been waiting since Vegas eliminated Winnipeg to win the Western Conference title nine days ago.
Featuring four lead changes for the first time in Cup Final history, Game 1 did little, however, to shake the notion that we should buckle up for the long haul. The Capitals have already become the first visiting team to score in the first period against Vegas this postseason—forwards Brett Connolly and Nicklas Backstrom did so 43 seconds apart—and they hung four all together on Conn Smythe favorite Marc-Andre Fleury, though the goalie did accidentally boot one into his own net. At times they used the Golden Knights’ trademark aggression as a cudgel, finding soft spots in coverage for high-danger chances. They survived cross-checks to the kidneys (T.J. Oshie) and back (John Carlson), took an errant puck to the face (Alex Ovechkin) and pushed hard enough to have a chance when netminder Braden Holtby fled to the bench.
But the Capitals have endured through their longest run in two decades through sound defensive structure and opportunistic offense, far from the shotgun style that ceded four goals at 5-on-5 and six overall for the only time this spring. The Golden Knights, meanwhile, are expert quick-strike artists who thrive off chaos, like the mad net-front scramble that resulted in Ryan Reaves tying the game at 4-4. Surely it will benefit Washington—and the rest of our respiratory systems—to rediscover its essence. But where is the fun in that?
Aside from intermission, only one moment seemed ideal for a respite. It happened early into the third period, as Vegas blueliner Colin Miller gained possession and tried breaking out from his end. An anticipatory roar swelled from the crowd. The puck tumbled through the neutral zone, out of the reach of several jousting sticks, before Washington center Jay Beagle finally nudged it to safety. The Golden Knights changed skaters. The Capitals breathed. “So there can be a semblance of sanity about all this,” play-by-play man Doc Emrick said on the NBC broadcast.
One brief moment, at least.