- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 4, 2018

Capitals coach Barry Trotz has been through the expansion process before, so he knows what the first year is supposed to look like. During the 1998-99 season, the upstart Nashville Predators won just 28 games and had only one forward who scored more than 20 goals with Trotz at the helm.

Trotz joked the talent was so bare that whenever the Predators won a game that season, it forced other teams to have a closed door meeting to air out their problems.

The NHL’s newest expansion team, the Vegas Golden Knights, have not had that problem. Through 52 games, Vegas has been the surprise of the NHL — soaring to first place in the Western Conference with the second best record in the league.

The Capitals were reminded Sunday of the talent Vegas has acquired, losing 4-3 to the Golden Knights. Vegas has now beaten the Capitals in both meetings this season.

With 5:22 left, Golden Knights forward Alex Tuch sent the game-deciding goal past Capitals goaltender Philipp Grubauer, who started in place of Braden Holtby. Tuch and a swarm of Vegas attackers crowded the net and Grubauer accidentally pushed Tuch’s shot past the goal line.

The goal was part of a two-goal rally in the third to spoil a 3-2 Capitals lead.

“I thought we played well enough to at least have a point there and we didn’t,” Trotz said. “It was sort of the story of Vegas. … They’ve got an unwavering belief that they’re going to find a way to get the puck in.”

Vegas’ speed helps put games away, and the Capitals struggled, at times, to keep up. The Golden Knights had 31 shots on goal, leading Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen to criticize the amount of high quality chances Washington has allowed in lately.

The Capitals, though, had plenty of chances of their own. While they only had 23 shots on goal, the Capitals took a 3-2 lead in the third on a beautiful pass from defenseman Christian Djoos to center Nicklas Backstrom on a wide-open backside goal.

Capitals forward Brett Connolly also had a chance to tie with a minute left, missing an open net.

“Chances, you create them yourself,” Backstrom said. “We’ve gotta be smarter with the puck.”

Trotz previously referred to Vegas as “not a real expansion team” — given the amount of talent Golden Knights (and former Capitals) general manager George McPhee had to choose from during the expansion draft in June.

The NHL designated teams could only protect up to 11 players with parameters (seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie) or eight skaters and a goaltender.

Vegas’ picks in the draft included former Capitals defenseman Nate Schmidt, who was left exposed because Washington protected Niskanen, Carlson and Dmitry Orlov.

In Schmidt, the Capitals lost a promising 26-year-old defenseman known for his skating ability.

With Vegas, Schmidt has been slotted on the top pair for the Golden Knights’ blue line. Entering Sunday’s game, he was second on the Golden Knights in points among defensemen.

When the Golden Knights drafted him, Trotz told Schmidt in the summer to enjoy the experience.

“He said, ‘it’s going to be the most fun year you’ll ever play in,’” Schmidt said. “And you know what? It has been so far. It’s just everything has been so fresh and so new for all of our guys. It’s been a new experience every place we go and every place we are. Our guys are just kind of cherishing the moments together.”

The draft also netted the Golden Knights longtime Capitals foil Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury, who spent the first 13 seasons of his career in Pittsburgh, was riding a two-game shutout of the Capitals, dating back to Game 7 of the 2017 playoffs.

The Capitals, though, broke that streak in the first period when Chandler Stephenson sniped a goal to make it 1-0.

Stephenson’s goal, his third in three games, was the first time in 10 games where the Capitals scored first. On Saturday, Trotz said the Capitals needed to do a better job of getting on the board early, so they didn’t have to chase the game as often.

But Washington’s first goal ultimately didn’t matter.

The two teams traded goals until Vegas took the lead in the third.

Golden Knights forward Reilly Smith tied the game at 3 with 10:39 left. He flew down the ice — using his speed to create space in transition.

“I think if we got it to 4-2, we would have been in real good shape,” Trotz said. “We didn’t and their third goal is 2-on-3 and they hit a goal. That can’t happen that late in the the game.”

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