Two of the league’s hottest teams over the last two months tangled on Sunday at Capital One Arena, with both the Capitals and the visiting Vegas Golden Knights aiming to bounce back from Friday night losses, and both teams seeking to avoid consecutive regulation losses for the first time in more than two months.
Sunday’s contest was a fast-paced affair in which few whistles were heard, but when the final horn sounded, it was the Golden Knights who prevailed by a 4-3 count, handing the Caps a second straight regulation loss for the first time since Nov. 14-16.
Washington had a trio of one-goal leads in Sunday’s game, but was never able to add to any of them, and Vegas responded in kind each time, finally taking its first lead of the game late in the third period.
After the game, Caps coach Barry Trotz was asked whether he felt like his team gave this one way.
“Yeah, I do,” says Trotz. “I thought that we played well enough to at least get a point there, and we didn’t. It’s sort of the story of Vegas; they [came from behind] in Calgary and they did it in a few places in the third.
“They’ve got an unwavering belief that they’re going to find a way to get a puck in, and you’re getting a lot of breaks, and they’re playing good. They’re a good hockey team, there is no question about that.”
For the first time in 10 games, the Caps managed to get on the board first. From the Washington goal line, Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen lofted the puck out to neutral ice. Jay Beagle corralled it in his skates and dished to Chandler Stephenson, who gained the Vegas zone and ripped a wrist shot high to the far corner, past the outstretched glove hand of Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury for a 1-0 Washington lead at 7:22 of the first period.
The goal was Stephenson’s third in as many games.
“I’m just finding that chemistry with the guys that I’m playing with and just trying to have some fun,” says Stephenson. “I’m playing more and getting some bounces. It’s good for the confidence.”
Beagle made a desperate, diving stick sweep of the crease in his own end shortly after the Caps gained the lead, and he was successful at knocking the puck out of harm’s way just as it was about to wobble across the goal line behind Washington netminder Philipp Grubauer. That kept the Caps’ lead intact at the time, but Vegas pulled even late in the first frame, matching Washington’s fourth-line goal with a fourth-line strike of its own.
Ex-Caps defenseman Nate Schmidt carried into Washington ice with speed, feeding Pierre-Edouard Bellemare down low on the left side. Bellemare bumped it to Ryan Carpenter, who slipped a shot past Grubauer at 16:06 of the first to make it a 1-1 game.
Washington was unable to take advantage of the game’s first two power plays, but it did regain its lead in between those two man advantage opportunities. Dmitry Orlov carried into the Vegas zone, dishing to Evgeny Kuznetsov shortly after crossing the blueline. Kuznetsov held and waited, then spotted Matt Niskanen as the late guy entering the zone. Kuznetsov put a pass right on Niskanen’s tape, and the Caps defenseman beat former Pittsburgh teammate Fleury on the glove side for a 2-1 Washington lead at 8:38 of the second period.
Late in the middle frame, Caps defenseman Brooks Orpik was sent to the box on a bit of a dubious hooking call, and Vegas cashed in on the power play for the seventh consecutive game. Golden Knights winger Reilly Smith had three whacks at the puck from the top of the paint, and he chipped the third one behind Grubauer to square the score at 2-2 at the 18:53 mark of the second.
In the first minute of the third period, the Caps nudged back in front. All three of Washington’s Russians combined on the Caps’ last goal in Friday’s 7-4 loss at Pittsburgh, and all three Swedes combined for the team’s last tally on Sunday afternoon.
Andre Burakovsky sent a cross-ice pass to Christian Djoos, who spotted Nicklas Backstrom all alone at the back door, just off the right post. Djoos, pushed the puck to Backstrom, who had enough time to stop the puck with his skate and then tap it in from the top of the paint. Backstrom’s goal gave the Caps a 3-2 lead just 52 seconds into the third period.
Whether the Caps were guilty of lying back with a one-goal lead against a very good Vegas team is arguable, but what’s not arguable is that the Golden Knights doubled up the Caps in third-period shot attempts by a 26-12 count in a stanza that was played entirely at five-on-five. After Backstrom’s go-ahead goal in the first minute of the final frame, Washington managed just two shot attempts and one shot on goal over the next 11-plus minutes. In the meantime, Vegas pulled even for the third time.
Vegas forward Jonathan Marchessault made a nice play from neutral ice, putting a lead pass into Washington ice, in an area where only Smith could get to it. Smith collected the puck and fired a shot high to the short side, over Grubauer’s right shoulder to tie the game at 3-3 at 9:12 of the third.
With 5:12 remaining, the Golden Knights took the lead for the first time, doing so on a sustained offensive zone shift. Knights rookie Alex Tuch put a shot on net from down low on the left side, and it eluded Grubauer and slid slowly but inexorably toward the goal line. The prone Caps goalie reached out to try to cover it, but instead ended up nudging it over the goal line.
Trotz issued a coach’s challenge alleging goaltender interference on Tuch, but the challenge failed, as did the Caps’ bid for a subsequent tying tally.
“I thought we had the game when it was 3-2,” rues Trotz. “We had a couple of open nets and we missed those, and it just came back and bit us you know where.”
After Tuch’s go-ahead goal, the Caps managed only two more shots on goal the rest of the way, one of them a 98-footer from neutral ice. Vegas was able to hold onto its only lead of the game as it rebounded nicely from Friday’s 5-2 loss to the Wild in Minnesota.
“It was a good bounce-back game for us after our last game,” says Vegas coach Gerard Gallant, “which was a real tough loss for us and we didn’t play that well. But today everybody competed hard, and everybody played the game they were supposed to play. It’s a huge win for us."