LAS VEGAS – There is no shortage of players who need to be better on the Washington Capitals in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final, starting with their most dynamic player. Alex Ovechkin, by his own admission, didn’t leave a very good first impression and hinted that he might have allowed his nerves to get the better of him.
“Next game is going to be different,” Ovechkin told reporters on the off day between games. “All the nervousness, the bad things, goes away from this game.”
The Capitals had better hope Ovechkin is right because it appeared they had a definitive case of the yips in Game 1. With one exception when he had a chance in tight, Ovechkin was relatively quiet in Game 1. Part of the reason for that is because the Vegas Golden Knights have such good sticks and awareness in the defensive zone that they take away a lot of passing opportunities. Ovechkin will have to play through this and persevere and find a way to be better.
And speaking of being better, goalie Braden Holtby posted an .848 save percentage in Game 1. One thing that shielded him from too much criticism was the fact that Marc-Andre Fleury was almost as bad at the other end of the ice, posting an .857 mark. So that’s a wash. But had Holtby been more solid, the Caps might not be lamenting the opportunity they lost in Game 1.
Three of the five goals Holtby allowed were scored on plays that started below the goal line, plays that Capitals coach Barry Trotz said were secondary plays instead of primary ones. But Holtby, one of the best puckhandling goalies in the NHL, also thought he could have been better in helping his team get out of its zone, something that is key against a team that forechecks as relentlessly as the Golden Knights. “Last game was one of those that I thought I could have done a lot better job to make easier breakouts,” Holtby said. “Today we worked on it a bit to try to figure out a game plan. They’re a little erratic compared to most forechecks. They don’t go the same routes every time, they’re kind of just a free-for-all all the time, so you need patience and you need to read every forecheck different.”
As far as the plays from behind the net, two of which came essentially on shots that missed the net, Holtby wasn’t terribly concerned with his ability to read those back-door plays. In fact, he said he thought the teams he faced in the previous rounds, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins, were far more inclined to start plays from behind the net.
“I looked at all the goals and maybe there’s a couple of minor things,” Holtby said. “Some of those goals were just strange. That’s hockey and that’s the way it goes. When you’re analyzing, you want to find a way you can give yourself the best chance to stop the puck. Sometimes that’s not going to happen and can’t reinvent the wheel. You just have to be honest with yourself, find ways where you can be better and be realistic as well.”
To be sure, the Golden Knights are quick and that was no more evident than on the game-winner when Shea Theodore made an outstanding play at the blueline to get the puck cross-ice to Tomas Nosek. Holtby went cross-crease, but was beaten cleanly on the one-timer. “That’s the way things are going, more of those lateral plays,” Holtby said. “It’s like cat-and-mouse with goaltending and offense. You make one adjustment and they make the next. (Goalies) are pretty good at stopping straight-on shots now and you’re trying to find that extra pass, that extra lane and we got some good preparation playing Pittsburgh and Tampa that way.”
For his part, Trotz said more than anything, Game 1 reaffirmed to his team the style of play of the opponent, something he says they’ll be much more ready to deal with in Game 2. “That’s what they do, they’re an east-west type of team,” Trotz said. “They use the back of the net. They’re a forechecking team and those forechecking teams will do that. It wasn’t a surprise, but the pucks were bouncing pretty good…To me it was more of that, a lot of chaos because the pucks were bouncing around.”
Trotz said the ice was much better for Tuesday’s practice, but there is no guarantee it won’t be back to what it was in Game 1 with a building full of people. So the Capitals will have to manage that chaos, both in terms of the on-ice play and their own emotions. This is not unfamiliar territory for them. The lost the first game in each of the first two rounds and have trailed at one point in all three rounds in these playoffs. “I think for us, as a group, we learned a lot of lessons (in Game 1),” Trotz said. “I didn’t think we had enough substance in our game. If we bring our game to the level I know we can, as a coach I’m excited about that. If we make the adjustments that we need and everybody gets back to a little more of our foundation, then I think we’ll be back in the series real quickly.”