The Stanley Cup banner dangled from the Capital One Arena rafters in its new location: Next to the Washington Bullets’ 1977-78 world championship banner, between the American and Canadian flags.
When players faced that direction during the national anthem Wednesday night, the Vegas Golden Knights surely had to confront in their own minds what that banner stood for — unless they blocked its image out entirely.
“What happened last year is disappointing; we need to stop talking about last year also,” Vegas forward Jonathan Marchessault said earlier this week.
Maybe the Golden Knights will be able to do that now that Wednesday’s one-sided Stanley Cup rematch is behind them.
The Washington Capitals used a dominant night from their defense and their top line to defeat the Golden Knights once more, winning 5-2 in the teams’ first meeting since last year’s Final.
Evgeny Kuznetsov powered Washington with a goal and three primary assists, helping Alex Ovechkin score twice.
“He was feeling it tonight, obviously,” Ovechkin said of his linemate. “It’s fun to watch. It’s fun to be on the ice when he play like that. It give us a great chance to score.”
Ovechkin moved into 17th all-time in goals scored (611), passing Bobby Hull.
Nicklas Backstrom finished with a goal and an assist, and John Carlson and Brett Connolly both tallied two helpers. Braden Holtby recorded 29 saves and outshined Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
Holtby and the defense kept Washington in the game with excellent play until some of their offensive chances started to find their way in the net.
The Capitals beat the Golden Knights four games to one in last season’s Stanley Cup Final, in Vegas’s first year in the league. Wednesday was Washington’s first-ever regular-season win over the Knights.
“With having a few days off in between games, I’m happy that this was our opponent tonight,” Todd Reirden said. “Because we knew that they were gonna be a hungry, desperate team that would like to reverse what happened last year. So it helped us to get a little bit invested to start the game.”
Kuznetsov — who racked up eight points against Vegas in the Stanley Cup Final, a team high — had a different opinion on the matter.
“It doesn’t matter for me against who you play. It’s just about have fun every night you go out there,” he said. “If you don’t have fun and you don’t want to enjoy, you don’t want to play hockey, you should be retired.”
The first several minutes of the game were quiet, but the Capitals (2-0-1) soon asserted control. They held Vegas (1-3-0) without a shot on the Golden Knights’ first power play, and Holtby only had to stop four shots during the first period overall.
Soon after that, Kuznetsov’s power-play goal in the final minute of the first period opened scoring. Backstrom sent a pass to Kuznetsov in the slot for his fifth assist of the year.
Both teams scored in a quick sequence in the middle of the second frame. Ovechkin and Kuznetsov managed to get on a 2-on-2 breakaway up the ice, and Kuznetsov faked out Vegas blueliner Colin Miller with a stick move to cause him to fall over. The center then connected with Ovechkin at the left circle to set up the captain’s third goal of the year and gave the Capitals a 2-0 lead.
On the next shift, however, Cody Eakin scored on a textbook wrap-around out of Holtby’s reach to make it a one-goal game again.
The Capitals scored on another power play five minutes into the third period. It was Backstrom’s turn, a quick deflection behind Marc-Andre Fleury’s back after receiving a pass from Kuznetsov. But again, the two-goal margin would barely last. Vegas’s Reilly Smith tipped in a pass from Nick Holden in front of the net two minutes after Backstrom’s goal.
Kuznetsov wasn’t done dealing apples. Right after Washington killed off a penalty, he again found his favorite target, Ovechkin, on a 3-on-2 rush. He rifled a pass right and Ovechkin smacked it home.
Vegas briefly had some life when Tomas Nosek wrapped around Holtby’s net and passed to Max Pacioretty to set up a goal. But Reirden challenged the play — Pacioretty was offsides when he entered the zone to set up the play, and the goal quickly came off the board.
“It’s the benefit having two skilled guys that we have on our video staff between (Tim) Ohashi and (Brett) Leonhardt,” Reirden said. “They right away wired to us that, in their opinion, it was a 100 percent challenge. I was pretty certain watching with my own eye, but it’s nice to get confirmation from a couple trained professionals.”
T.J. Oshie scored an empty-netter to finish it off.
Though Vegas rebounded from a slow start offensively, Washington was ready for the onslaught of shots that followed. The Knights finished with 31 shots on goal — 27 of which came in the second and third periods — as well as 20 attempts blocked and 17 more off-target.
“I think we’ve played them enough to know they were gonna come at some point,” Holtby said. “It’s a matter of keeping your cool and not getting frustrated. You need a couple big plays, be it blocks or saves or guys getting the puck out and those type of things. I think we got enough of them tonight to win.”
Washington’s penalty kill held Vegas to 0-for-3 on the power play. The Knights are now scoreless on 11 power plays to start the year.
There was a brief injury scare when Brooks Orpik left the game in the first period after a hit into the boards. But he returned during the second period, and Reirden later said Orpik went through concussion protocol and checked out.
The Capitals, on another back-to-back, go straight to New Jersey Thursday to play the Devils. It could be back-up netminder Pheonix Copley’s turn to make his first start as a Capital.