LAS VEGAS – In a playoff season such as this one, nothing should surprise us anymore. So it’s only fitting that after Game 1 of the 2018 Stanley Cup final, the most pivotal question facing the Washington Capitals is how they’re going to stop the Vegas Golden Knights’ fourth line. That should not shock us. Nor should it be a surprise that a pivotal goal in the game was scored as the direct result of a blatant cross-check right in front of a referee. It should also not raise any eyebrows that Tom Wilson of the Capitals, the man who apparently cannot be rehabilitated, drilled a star forward who was nowhere near the puck.
Yes, clearly it is time to completely expect the unexpected, to accept the abnormal as routine. It’s a lot of fun to watch, but if you’re looking for anything in this series that even remotely follows logic, you’re searching in the wrong place.
Take the Golden Knights’ fourth line, for instance. Until the Knights turned everything upside down this year, most fourth lines were occupied by Canadian bruisers, but in Vegas you have a Frenchman (Pierre-Edouard Bellemare) flanking an American (Ryan Reaves) and a Czech (Tomas Nosek). Yes, Reaves was born in Winnipeg, but he’s an American through and through and the next time he plays in the Olympics or World Cup, it will be with Team USA. You also expect fourth lines to respond to hits like Wilsons in the third period by responding in kind, but instead, the fourth line delivered its second of three goals on the night, off the stick of Nosek.
The pivotal tying goal came off the stick of Reaves, who was aided by an egregious non-call by referee Wes McCauley, who simply watched Reaves flatten John Carlson with a cross-check in front of the net before scoring. A trade deadline pick-up, Reaves has provided his team with some unexpected offense after being very quiet in the regular season.
“I was saving them,” Reaves said. “I don’t know if you guys knew, but I told everybody I was saving them for the playoffs. I don’t think they’re going to be having meetings about our fourth line. I don’t think that’s their problem.”
No, the Capitals’ problems run deeper than that. First, like the Winnipeg Jets, they have to have a lot more concern with attention to detail, particularly when they score a goal. The Capitals blew two leads in the game, with tying goals coming in very short order after they had taken the lead. Goalie Braden Holtby has to be much, much better, particularly on his rebound control and ability to read the play behind his own net. And the Capitals aren’t going to win anything if Alex Ovechkin is going to be limited to two shots and five attempts.
The Golden Knights were remarkably businesslike for a team that’s three wins away from a Stanley Cup. They were also quick to acknowledge that the fourth-line heroics are not the regular fare, nor do they need to be. But when the coach has that kind of faith in his fourth unit and gets that kind of production from the trio, it gives his team an enormous depth advantage. And the Golden Knights have been doing this all season, so now that they’re in the Stanley Cup final, that group getting key ice time and being relied on for a contribution is not something completely foreign to them.
“Hockey has changed a bit, huh?” said Bellemare of the fourth line’s role on this team. “Thanks God for that, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. We haven’t had many games this year where we are the decisive line on the ice and it’s not going to happen every single game, but tonight it was fun to help the team offensively. We just tried to outwork who we’re playing against and it worked. It’s not like the craziest recipe ever.”
As far as the Wilson hit, it was vintage Tom Wilson. Could have avoided it easily and chose not to, instead drilling a key player and sending him off for concussion protocol. The Golden Knights were incensed at the minor penalty, but channeled their anger into something productive. Wilson should be suspended, of course, but almost certainly will not. Because NHL. At the very least, it should have been a major penalty and instead ended up as a 4-on-4. Wilson said after the game that Marchessault complimented him on the hit. “When you watch it on replay and see how hard he hits Marchessault, it should have been a major penalty,” said Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant. “He hit him real late and real hard and he really went after him.”
In the end, it was an ugly play in a game that was full of them, not just from a missed-calls standpoint. Generally speaking, both teams were fairly sloppy, which contributed to the 10-goal output. “We gave up a lot of scoring chances, but we created a lot of scoring chances also,” Gallant said. “We’ve got to be better. I’m sure Barry (Capitals coach Trotz) is not too happy with that game and I’m not too happy with that game, but the bottom line is we won the game, so we’re going to be a lot happier than they are.”