EditorsNote: Fixes Theodore typo in 9th graf
With four shutouts, 12 wins and a sparkling .947 save percentage, Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was the leading candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy, which goes to the most valuable player in the NHL playoffs, heading into the Stanley Cup Final.
However, that may have changed with one spectacular diving save by Braden Holtby on Wednesday night as the Washington Capitals held on for a 3-2 victory over the Golden Knights in Las Vegas, evening the best-of-seven series at a game apiece.
With two minutes to go, Vegas forward Alex Tuch was parked alone just outside the left side of the net. He one-timed a crossing pass from Cody Eakin, and the puck appeared headed into an open net. However, Holtby lunged across the crease and stopped the shot with the head of his stick right below his glove.
Many in the record crowd of 18,702 in T-Mobile Arena as well as several thousand more fans watching the game on a big screen outside in Toshiba Plaza began cheering for a few seconds thinking the game had been tied. But Holtby, who finished with 37 saves, had covered the puck with his glove.
“That’s hockey sometimes,” said a modest Holtby, who helped the Capitals get into the Stanley Cup Final with back-to-back shutouts in Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning. “I think a couple of breaks didn’t go our way (in a 6-4 Game 1 loss on Monday) — penalty calls, and an open-net (miss) — that type of thing. (But) if you keep doing the right things, that goes your way.”
Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said, “It was an unbelievable save. Obviously, Tuch had an open net, and the goalie throws his arm back and gets his stick on it, and it was just an athletic save by him. Good for him. We would have loved to see it go in the net, but he made a great play.”
“He was laser-focused tonight,” Washington defenseman John Carlson added. “It’s got to be one of the nicest saves I’ve ever seen.”
Lars Eller had a goal and two assists, and Alex Ovechkin and Brooks Orpik also scored goals for Washington, which won a Stanley Cup Final game for the first time in team history. The Capitals, who were swept by the Detroit Red Wings in the 1998 finals, were 0-5 after losing Monday night’s opener.
James Neal and Shea Theodore scored goals for Las Vegas, which lost for just the fourth time in 17 playoff games. Fleury finished with 23 saves.
Neal gave Vegas a 1-0 lead at the 7:58 mark of the opening period, chopping down a long pass from Luca Sbisa inside his own blue line and then firing a wrist shot from the dot in the left circle past Holtby’s glove side. It kept alive an impressive streak for the Golden Knights in the playoffs, scoring first in all nine home games, including six times in the first eight minutes.
Washington, which lost leading playoff scorer Evgeny Kuznetsov to a left arm injury after a crunching mid-ice check by Brayden McNabb just three minutes earlier, tied it at 17:27 of the first period. Eller fired a shot into a wide-open right side of net off a nice cross-ice pass by Michal Kempny.
Ovechkin scored his 13th goal of the playoffs on a power play at 5:38 of the second period with Tuch serving a cross-checking penalty. He converted on an Eller crossing pass, beating Fleury on his stick side.
Orpik then made it 3-1 four minutes later with his first goal since February 2016, snapping a 220-game drought in the process. Eller again had the primary assist, sliding a pass from the slot to Orpik in the right circle, where his shot ricocheted off the arm of Tuch and then to the inside of the right post.
Theodore cut it to 3-2 at 17:47 of the second period with a power-play goal. He fired a wrist shot from the top of the slot that went past a double screen by Tuch and William Karlsson and past Holtby’s glove hand.
Besides Holtby’s late game-saving save, Vegas had several excellent opportunities in the third period, including a 5-on-3 advantage for 1:09, launching nine shots but getting denied by Holtby on five scoring chances.
“We have a really proud group of penalty killers,” Holtby said. “They did an amazing job. That was the turning point of the game.”
The Capitals improved to 9-3 on the road in the playoffs and handed Vegas its first regulation home loss since March 28.
Game 3 is Saturday night at Capital One Arena in Washington.
—Field Level Media