The Washington Capitals scored more goals on Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 1 (four) than the Los Angeles Kings managed in getting swept by Vegas (three), yet the Golden Knights won 6-4.
The thing is, while you can quibble with a goal here or there (the optics on this one weren’t great), it’s tough to pin the high-scoring nature of that Game 1 on Fleury or his counterpart Braden Holtby. Game 1 featured the sort of frenetic, thrilling pace that can transform casual hockey fans into fanatics, yet it certainly must not have been easy on the goalies or coaches.
NBC Sports Washington delves into some of the Capitals’ specific defensive issues, but to keep it simple, Holtby can only do so much when players like Reilly Smith receive chances like these.
And, frankly, there were some breakdowns that didn’t result in goals. Fleury’s save in tight on Alex Ovechkin early in Game 1 was easily forgotten, yet crucial.
Ultimately, the Golden Knights beat Holtby five times (adding an empty-netter for insurance) on 33 shots on goal, while Fleury made 24 of 28 saves. To quickly summarize how unusual this must have felt for both netminders, consider how they played before Monday: Fleury allowed just six goals in his last four games (now 10 in five, all wins), while Holtby generated two consecutive shutouts to eliminate the Tampa Bay Lightning.
So, the question is: will the rest of this series be as unkind to the goalies as Game 1 was? Let’s ponder the arguments for and against such thoughts while realizing that we’re unlikely to see many more 10-goal games.
The significant layoff between the Capitals’ Game 7 against Tampa Bay (Wednesday, May 23) and especially the Golden Knights closing out Winnipeg in a Game 5 (Sunday, May 20) meant that both teams had the sort of fresh legs you rarely see four rounds into the postseason. An electric Vegas crowd ratcheted that energy up another level.
Chances are, as this series goes along, the energy will ebb and flow. It will be interesting to see how much of a difference certain breaks make, too; while Game 1 and 2 feature the usual one-day break between contests, that’s not uniform across the remainder of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.
Such gaps could be a godsend for the Capitals, who’ve played four more games than the Golden Knights and have been asking a lot of 32-year-old Alex Ovechkin. That said, those gaps in the schedule may, conversely, make it that much easier for the Golden Knights to maintain their often-relentless style.
Interestingly, both teams managed to limit chances off the rush in Game 1, despite the otherwise chaotic nature of that contest.
It’s not just fatigue that might slow this series down to the goalies’ liking.
Both coaches will get more familiar with each team as this series goes along, from additional video of their opponents’ structure to a deeper understanding of which matchups to exploit and which ones to avoid. Barry Trotz is one of the NHL’s great defensive thinkers, while Gerard Gallant’s team showed that they can grind through a low-scoring series against Los Angeles, so expect adjustments.
Settling down vs. irresistible forces
Beyond those tweaks, it’s simply likely that Fleury and Holtby will flat-out play better.
Consider how “The Flower” has responded recently to relative “off” nights. After allowing four goals in a Game 4 loss and three in a Game 5 win against San Jose, Fleury shut out the Sharks to eliminate them in Game 6. The Jets scored four goals in a Game 1 win against Vegas, then Fleury allowed two or fewer goals in four consecutive victories.
Holtby’s shown resilience in general in 2017-18, bouncing back from a rare rough regular season to produce some of the best playoff work of his career (which, despite Washington’s disappointments, is saying something).
Still, there are some reasons to expect additional lows with potential highs.
[Fleury’s playoff work against Washington, Ovechkin isn’t as good as you think]
Consider this: only one of Game 1’s 10 goals came on the power play. When you note how big a factor special teams has been for Washington in particular (17 power-play goals for, 16 against in 20 games; Vegas has given up and generated 10 PPG), that could offset schematic improvements.
And, yes, Ovechkin shooting from “his office” makes for a unique threat, but maybe Vegas has the best training one can ask for after limiting Patrik Laine in the Western Conference Final?
Ovechkin will probably get his goals, which he didn’t in Game 1 (he did nab an assist, though). Vegas’ vaunted top line generated plenty of offense, even beyond goals for Reilly Smith and William Karlsson. Depth players are already making their presences felt, so it’s easy to see that both teams sport the sort of supporting casts you usually need to make it this far.
On the other hand, Trotz and Gallant will surely try to clean up all of those high-danger chances. These shot charts probably raise their blood pressure (via Natural Stat Trick):
To the relief of the coaches and goalies, some of that manic energy will subside. Rusty mistakes will turn to safe plays. We might even see a shutout or two.
For those of us who loved just about every minute of Game 1, let’s hope it doesn’t slow down too much.
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.