- The Washington Times - Monday, May 28, 2018

LAS VEGAS — In poker parlance, the NHL was dealt one royal flush of a game to kick off the 2018 Stanley Cup Final in Sin City.

In a game with four ties and a finals-record four lead changes, Tomas Nosek scored the game-winning goal midway through the third period to lift the Vegas Golden Knights to a 6-4 victory over the Washington Capitals in Game 1 Monday night.

When Devante Smith-Pelly blocked a pass in the defensive zone but botched the clear, Shea Theodore collected the puck and sent it to Nosek at the side of the net, and the fourth-line winger slapped it past Braden Holtby.

Brett Connolly, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson and Tom Wilson scored for the Capitals and T.J. Oshie had two assists.

After making 53 combined saves in consecutive shutouts of Tampa Bay in the Capitals‘ last two games, Holtby gave up five goals, including four at even strength.

Red Capitals sweaters speckled the steel gray crowd at T-Mobile Arena, but the night ultimately belonged to Vegas. Neither team led by more than a goal throughout the game until an empty-netter from Nosek in the final seconds. The Golden Knights came through in the third period by scoring the final three goals and keeping the Capitals out of the net for the last 19 minutes.

The team that wins Game 1 of a Stanley Cup Final has gone on to win the series 78 percent of the time.

Capitals coach Barry Trotz said he knew his team can play at “another level.”

“There were parts of our game we didn’t like. The way we managed pucks and stuff,” Trotz said. “But I thought we had a good response most times. Obviously they got the first goal and the crowd was into it and all, and I didn’t like the first part of the second period. After that I thought we responded a lot better.”

One minute after Andre Burakovsky took the game’s first penalty, defenseman Colin Miller struck first for the Golden Knights. He poked the puck out of a right-side scrum to Erik Haula, and Haula set Miller up at the top of the right circle for a slap shot power-play goal 7:15 into the game.

It was the first goal Holtby had allowed since May 19, after more than seven periods and 164 total minutes without letting one by.

Most of the Capitals‘ early shot attempts flew wide of the net, and Marc-Andre Fleury only had to make two saves in the first 15 minutes. But on their third shot on goal, Washington answered. Michal Kempny sent in a rifle from the left side of the blue line, and though it would have been off the mark, Fleury shifted left to stop it. Connolly was waiting in the slot and redirected it past Fleury’s right side; the puck glanced off the inside of the pipe on its way in.

Buoyed by the goal, the Capitals regained possession after the re-start and brought it back to their offensive zone. Oshie wrapped around the net, and rather than shooting, he hit Backstrom in the slot for an easy goal.

But Vegas drew even before the period was up. At 18:19, Matt Niskanen blocked a Reilly Smith shot but William Karlsson collected the rebound off the backboards to sneak it past Holtby.

Eight of Washington’s 10 first-period shots on goal came in the final five minutes.

Before the Capitals could put a shot on net in the second period, Vegas regained the lead. Holtby stoned a Deryk Engelland shot and the following shot missed wide, but the Knights continued the assault. Engelland hit a bounce pass in front of the crease to Reilly Smith, who finished with a wrister in the top-right corner.

Carlson and Oshie kept the back-and-forth theme alive. Midway through the second, Carlson passed from the blue line through a defender’s legs to Oshie. The puck was nearly out of Oshie’s reach, but in one motion he grabbed it and curled it to the slot for Carlson. Fleury was drawn too far out of position and Carlson finished the job.

Vegas took its first penalty at 13:55 for too many men on the ice, but the Capitals did not put a shot on net during their power play.

The end of the second period moved slowly, but the start of the third made up for it. Wilson put the Capitals on top with a shot through Fleury’s five-hole after the goalie blocked Alex Ovechkin’s shot. That came only 1:10 into the third period, but the Knights responded a minute and a half later when Kempny missed a bouncing puck near Holtby’s net and Ryan Reaves scored.

After the game, the Capitals would argue that Reaves illegally cross-checked John Carlson to the ice before scoring, a missed call NBC analyst Mike Milbury called “unforgivable.”

“I didn’t like the fourth goal. I thought we were going on the power play there,” Trotz said.

The check “is one that could have been called,” Niskanen concurred.

A few minutes later, Wilson blindsided Jonathan Marchessault with a shoulder check in the neutral zone, and he was eventually assessed an interference minor while Marchessault left the game to enter concussion protocol. But the Capitals did not need to go on the penalty kill. After the whistle, Ovechkin made an incidental late hit on David Perron, and Perron retaliated with a heavy cross-check to Ovechkin’s back. So Perron and Wilson served their minutes at the same time.

Vegas coach Gerard Gallant felt the Wilson hit should have been a major penalty.

Wilson’s a great hockey player. He’s a competitive guy and he’s an old-school player,” Gallant said. “For me it’s a late hit. We’re gonna stand up for our players. Marchessault’s one of our stars and you don’t like to see that happen.”

Once Nosek scored at 9:44, it was the Knights’ contest the rest of the way. Lars Eller had an opportunity to tie the game in the final minute in a 6-on-5 situation. Wilson passed it to Eller, who had an open net behind Fleury’s back, but Brayden McNabb knocked Eller’s stick away and no penalty was called.

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