A year ago, the Vegas Golden Knights were merely a glimmer in the eye of Commissioner Gary Bettman and were labeled suckers for having shelled out $500 million to become the NHL’s 31st franchise. On Monday they won the opener of the Stanley Cup Final, continuing a season full of unlikely feats that undeniably are their normal.
If it seemed surprising that fourth-liners Tomas Nosek and Ryan Reaves would outshine Washington’s prolific Alexander Ovechkin (who had one assist) and lead the Golden Knights to a 6-4 victory over the Capitals at a rocking T-Mobile Arena, it shouldn’t have been. Nothing the Golden Knights do has gone according to the form expected of expansion teams. But Reaves, who was acquired in February from Pittsburgh to add muscle to a small forward corps, disagreed with the suggestion his team is doing the impossible.
“I think that’s everybody else’s term for it. I think it’s definitely possible for us,” said Reaves, who led a three-goal spree by his line in the third period. “We have the right mindset and we’re going for it.”
They moved a step closer Monday in a thrilling game that took a sellout crowd of 18,575 on a wild ride. It was another great show in a city that’s famous for over-the-top drama, but opening-night jitters produced a stream of turnovers, giveaways and flat-out bad defensive plays.
“A little too exciting for the goalies,” Vegas’ Marc-Andre Fleury said, and he should know after being staked to an early lead, losing it, regaining it in the second period and not getting it back until Nosek took a pass from Shea Theodore and scored on one knee from the right circle at 9:44 of the third period.
Nosek, whose most significant goal before that was a winner for Grand Rapids (Mich.) of the American Hockey League in Game 1 of the 2017 Calder Cup final, sealed the victory with an empty-net goal that nearly brought the house down and kept the Capitals winless in Cup Final play. Washington was swept by Detroit in its only previous Final appearance, in 1998.
“That’s the beauty of sports,” Fleury said of the high score. “In the playoffs, you never know what’s going to happen and which way it’s going to go. We kept it interesting at the end. A little too much.”
The game had a dose of controversy, too, when Washington forward Tom Wilson leveled Vegas forward Jonathan Marchessault with a late hit in the third period, sending Marchessault to the locker room to follow the NHL’s concussion protocol. No penalty was initially called but a huddle of the officials produced a minor penalty for Wilson for interference and a cross-checking minor against Vegas forward David Perron, who appeared to come off the bench to avenge Wilson’s hit by striking Ovechkin in the back. That could have gotten Perron a 10-game suspension. In the capricious world of NHL justice, it probably won’t cost him.
Marchessault returned, but the NHL can suspend Wilson, who was banned for three games in the second round for a head shot against Pittsburgh’s Zach Aston-Reese. “I just got blindsided,” Marchessault said. “I’m not the guy that makes those decisions but the league’s going to take care of it.”
And maybe not. “I think he’d probably say he shouldn’t have admired his pass,” Wilson said, “and I’m just finishing my check.”
The Golden Knights set a frantic pace early. Given a power play when Washington forward Andre Burakovsky was penalized for boarding, they scored when defenseman Colin Miller’s low shot skipped just inside the right post at 7:15, ending Washington goalie Braden Holtby’s shutout streak at 166 minutes and 42 seconds.
Washington shook off its lethargy and took the lead in a span of 42 seconds. Michal Kempny kept the puck in at the point and took a shot that Brett Connolly redirected past Fleury while standing with his back to the net at 14:41, and Nicklas Backstrom converted a pass from T.J. Oshie at 15:23. Vegas responded at 18:19, when an energized William Karlsson eluded two defenders and scored from near the right post.
Vegas surged ahead 3-2 at 3:21 of the second period after a rebound attempt by Marchessault went over the net and Deryk Engelland dug the puck out and passed to Reilly Smith, who was alone in front. A slick passing play between defenseman John Carlson and Oshie ended with Carlson backhanding the puck past Fleury at 8:29 to even the score at 3-3.
Washington regained the lead at 1:10 of the third period, when Fleury accidentally kicked the puck back into his own net after a redirected shot by Wilson, but the Golden Knights tied it at 4-4 on a fine play by Reaves — who had gotten away with a crosscheck a moment earlier — from close range.
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen