In a previous season, with a previous group, the Washington Capitals might have caved under the weight of the situation they faced late in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final. Because this bunch, from superstar to spare part, moves to a strong and synchronized heartbeat and carved out a gutsy 3-2 victory Wednesday, the Final will shift to Washington on Saturday with the Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights tied one game apiece.
The Capitals had lost Game 1 and lost team scoring leader Evgeny Kuznetsov to an apparent arm injury in the first period Wednesday, yet managed to kill a 69-second two-man disadvantage early in the third period. Then, with a tick under two minutes left, the puck took an unexpected carom off the glass and landed on the stick of Vegas forward Cody Eakin, who quickly sent it across to linemate Alex Tuch. It seemed a sure goal because he was below the left circle and within point-blank range of goaltender Braden Holtby when he shot. Holtby, who didn’t start the first two games of the Capitals’ first-round series against Columbus, made a reaching, diving save with the paddle of his stick, a potential series-changer and the first Cup Final victory for the franchise. Washington was swept by Detroit in its only other Final appearance, in 1998.
“That save, at that time ... that’s just pure heart and desperation,” Capitals forward T.J. Oshie said. “Outstanding goaltenders rise to the occasion and make big plays like that. He did it.”
Teammate Alex Ovechkin, sitting on the bench, covered his face in disbelief and then rearranged his fingers so he could look up and see the replay on the video board at T-Mobile Arena. “Thank God he’s our goalie,” said Ovechkin, whose first career Cup Final goal had given Washington a 2-1 lead during a second-period power play. “It’s a big moment. It’s unbelievable.”
Holtby saw it as payback for the Capitals’ misfortunes in a seesaw 6-4 loss in Game 1. “I think a couple of bounces maybe just didn’t quite go our way the last game and we knew if we just stuck with it and did the right things it was going to go our way this game,” he said.
Coach Barry Trotz had a couple of explanations. “To me it was the hockey gods. They evened it up from last game,” he said. He also credited the new inner strength of a team that was overhauled after another second-round playoff exit last spring and has achieved more than ever when less was expected.
“This group has had everything thrown at them,” he said, citing injuries and the suspension of Tom Wilson in the second round, “and they just say, ‘You know what, we’re going to push on. We’re getting close. We have a vision of what we want to do and we just want to continue to keep playing.’ And that’s the great thing. It’s getting hard, these games. They’ve been physical games, they’ve been all-in games. They’re actually loving it. Our group is actually thriving on it.”
The Capitals had to bounce back after the Golden Knights scored first Wednesday. Defenseman Dmitry Orlov tried to bat down a pass intended for Vegas forward James Neal but instead knocked it to Neal, who rifled it home from the left circle at 7:58. After losing Kuznetsov to a neutral-zone hit by Vegas defenseman Brayden McNabb that Trotz said was high but is not likely to draw a suspension, Lars Eller tied it at 17:27 after Michal Kempny drew goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to one side and then passed to Eller, who had an open right side of the net.
Ovechkin scored from his “office” in the left circle at 5:38 of the second period while Tuch served an offensive-zone penalty, and 37-year-old defenseman Brooks Orpik increased the lead to 3-1 at 9:41 with his first goal since Feb. 26, 2016. His long shot, set up by a pass from Eller, appeared to deflect off someone before getting past Fleury and shocking everyone in the building. It probably stunned Orpik most of all, because he had gone 181 regular-season games and 39 playoff games without a goal. He needed stitches after the game, a team spokesman said, and wasn’t available to reporters.
“Orpik is one of those guys that stats and analytics probably aren’t kind to Brooksie,” Trotz said. “He’s old school. A true pro.”
Vegas defenseman Shea Theodore made it a one-goal game at 17:47 of the second period with a long wrist shot during a power play, but Vegas’ inability to cash in during that five-on-three consigned them to their second loss in nine home playoff games. “We’re a much better team than what we showed tonight,” said Vegas defenseman Nate Schmidt, a former Capital.