LAS VEGAS – Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final was a massive lost opportunity for the Washington Capitals. No one on their roster felt that more than center Lars Eller.
The Vegas Golden Knights led, 5-4, and T-Mobile Arena was in an uproar as the Caps were playing 6-on-5 hockey in the final minute Monday. Tom Wilson moved close to the goal, cutting around Golden Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt, and feathered a pass left-to-right to Eller. All Eller had to do was tap it into the empty cage with about 40 seconds left and the wildest opening night in the final in several years was heading to overtime.
Didn't happen. Former Sabre Bradyen McNabb pulled off a game-saving play, slashing at Eller's stick enough that Eller didn't receive the pass and the puck skittered away. Tomas Nosek's empty-net goal gave Vegas a 6-4 win and an early leg up on the series.
"There's tough breaks during a season and a series. Give me 100 of those and I'll put 99 in," Eller said after practice here Tuesday. "Tough break and we just have to reset."
"You're going 100 mph, everybody's screaming and you might be exhausted at that point," said Caps coach Barry Trotz. "Then there's a two-hand chop on your stick, it gets in that triangle and you miss it by an inch. It's a game of inches."
— Siniša Šindik (@SinisaSindik) May 29, 2018
After the close call, the Capitals were businesslike at practice Tuesday. They look to capitalize more in Game 2 on Wednesday night, trying to avoid the same 0-2 fate they dealt with in the first round against Columbus.
"We've come back from more difficult positions than right now," Eller said. "That being said, we don't want to be down and chasing. We can play better than we did last night and still came away with the lead a couple times. We're hopeful."
Eller's not kidding about the Caps being used to this. In fact, the NHL tweeted Wednesday morning that Washington can now become just the second team in history to trail in all four rounds and win the Cup. That was also done by the 1991 Pittsburgh Penguins.
Lots of things went wrong for the Capitals in Game 1. Alex Ovechkin was pedestrian at best. Brayden Holtby, coming off back-to-back shutouts that closed the Eastern Conference final against Tampa, gave up five goals and struggled handling the puck in his own end. He has to be better at that part of his play in Game 2. Holtby said Tuesday that Game 1 was a good learning experience because Vegas uses various forecheck patterns and he now has a better handle on what the Knights will try.
Wilson was absolved by the NHL for his scummy, off-the-puck drilling of Jonathan Marchessault in the third period but has probably used up any rope he has left this spring. Of course, he said again Tuesday it was a good hit. Hardly. It was simply a non-suspendable hit because it wasn't to the head.
Across the room, defenseman John Carlson was trying to be diplomatic about the officiating in Game 1. That was certainly a tough game to work. The speed was incredible, the atmosphere super-charged. But Carlson got pummeled by Ryan Reaves just before the Vegas tough guy scored the tying goal early in the third period.
Instead of celebrating his second goal in two games, Reaves should have been in the box for cross-checking and the Caps should have had a chance to go up by two goals on the ensuing power play. There's a school of thought referees shouldn't decide these games. I've always believed they do decide them exactly by not making calls they should.
"It's tough for an official," Carlson said. "You never want to see a scoring chance or a goal happen after one of those iffy calls. The way they normally operate is that a 50-50 call around the net or a dangerous area with a scoring chance about to happen, they usually call it. As opposed to if it's in the corner and you've just clipped someone a little bit."
In this case, however, the call went against the Caps. So in a game where the lead changed hands four times – a first in Cup final annals – the missed call looked huge.
"It's a goal and that happens," Wilson said. "There's stuff that goes on. That's hockey. There's little plays here and there and it's so fast you have to make sure you bounce back from it or do what you can to keep it out of the net."
We had 10 pucks in the net Monday in one of the most entertaining games in the final in years. Something tells me the coaches are going to get all coachy and dial things back for Game 2. Hope they don't. Expect they will.
"I thought we left a lot of our elements out," Trotz said. "In previous series, I thought we had a pretty good game. If we make the adjustments we need we'll be a little bit more to our foundation and we'll be back in the series quickly."
"They always come out hard here. That's what they do," Carlson said. "Catch a lot of teams early. We found a way to respond to that every time. The game was back and forth. It just goes to show that we can get a win here if we play the right way, tighten up a little bit on discipline, execute better, be sharper. I like our chances."