The Vegas Golden Knights defeated the Washington Capitals 6-4 in a thrilling Game 1 of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final. The outcome -- and the pathway there -- raised a quartet of questions that we posed to our panel prior to Game 2:
Alex Ovechkin said nerves factored into the Game 1 result. Buy it?
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: Depends on whom you ask. Ovechkin was likely honest when he said nerves are a factor, because he's four wins away from finally ending the dumbest criticism of his Hall of Fame-caliber career. But ask teammate Jay Beagle, as I did, and he'll tell you that the nerves were calmer after the first few shifts. From there, the Caps were just outhustled.
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: Hey, the captain knows his team far better than I do. That said, I have a hard time believing a team that overcame a 2-0 deficit in the first round, knocked off its arch rivals in the second round, then twice staved off elimination to beat the East's top team in a Game 7 suddenly clammed up.
Chris Peters, hockey prospects writer: I'm buying it. The Capitals were so much tighter defensively in the last two games of the Eastern Conference final, so much crisper in their play than the somewhat disjointed, loose effort they put together in Game 1; that could easily be explained away by nerves being a factor. The Caps had better hope it was nerves, and they'd also better hope they eradicate them as soon as possible to get back on track.
Ben Arledge, Insider NHL editor: I'll buy that it played a part. Vegas looked a lot more organized than the Caps throughout the game, especially in the early going. As pointed out by Chris, the Washington defense was out of sorts, but the Capitals did score four goals against a team that has been averaging fewer than two allowed per game. Vegas just won a close game. I'm not discounting what Ovechkin said, and I'm sure nerves were a component; but really, Washington just lost a tight one.
Which Capitals players need to step up for them to turn the series around?
Wyshynski: Evgeny Kuznetsov had one assist, three shots and five shot attempts overall in Game 1, showing flashes of that incredible offensive spark that has made him the Capitals' leading scorer. But as the Knights appear to be content to go strength vs. strength on these top lines, Washington needs much more possession play from their top unit, and that starts with Kuzy.
Kaplan: Game 1 was a weird one for John Carlson. He produced offensively (one sweet goal, one crossbar hit), but was most remembered as the victim of a non-called cross-check by Ryan Reaves. Washington's top defenseman also was caught behind the net on William Karlsson's goal late in the first period, and had spotty coverage on Tomas Nosek's first tally. Bottom line: Carlson has been spectacular these playoffs, but needs to return to that form for the Caps to have a chance.
Peters: I don't think Braden Holtby cost the Capitals Game 1 by any means at all, but he wasn't quite as sharp as you'd expect him to be coming off of back-to-back shutouts to send the Caps to the Final. The team in front of him didn't give him enough help, but when Holtby is on, he can win games on his own. I'd expect a substantial bounce-back from him.
Arledge: The offense wasn't really the issue, but just two shots and an assist for Ovechkin in the opener wasn't what we've come to expect. He by no means had a bad game -- this isn't about that. It's more so that the team runs through him, and he's the type of player who can take over a game. Game 2 would be a good place to start. I like Ovi to score at least once on Wednesday night, and I wouldn't be shocked to see him open up the scoring with an early one.
Did either goalie give you cause for concern after nine goals were scored on them in Game 1?
Wyshynski: It's less a cause for concern than a lingering one I've had about Marc-Andre Fleury in this season, that his save percentage heading into the Final -- which was the best in NHL history for goalies with at least 15 games in a postseason -- was going to come back down to earth, and that for all of his prior success against the Capitals, his numbers were never overwhelming against them. Nothing in Game 1 made me shake these notions.
Kaplan: I'm siding with Kuznetsov here. On Tuesday the Caps center said, "I don't think the goalies [made too many] mistakes last night, you know?" Neither goalie was terrific, but neither -- especially Holtby -- received much help. Most of the Golden Knights' goals were scored in close range, signaling blown coverage.
Peters: Even though I just answered Holtby to the previous question, I thought Fleury looked a bit more human in Game 1. Based on the way he has responded to previous tougher outings in these playoffs, it's not going to reach a point of great concern. However, if I'm the Capitals, putting up four goals in Vegas against Fleury with as good as he has been this postseason is a confidence booster despite the result. They know they can get pucks past the Conn Smythe favorite, they just have to get better at preventing them in their own end.
Arledge: Nah. Neither goalie played poorly; I didn't really feel any of those goals were weak. It's basically impossible to be concerned about Fleury right now, and Holtby just needs a little more support.
We're lifting the no-takebacks policy: Did the outcome or the specific events of Game 1 change your take on who will win the series?
Wyshynski: I picked the Capitals in six and my pick remains the Capitals in six, if only because we may have seen this movie before during the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs when Washington dropped two to Columbus. As they're fond of saying: They never make it easy on themselves.
Kaplan: I picked the Golden Knights in seven, so my prediction still holds well. However, if the Capitals don't clean up their defensive game -- specifically, allowing Vegas to get high-quality, uncontested scoring chances in point-blank areas right in front of Holtby -- this series could be shorter than that.
Peters: I've still got the Capitals in six games, but I never thought for a second coming into Game 1 that Vegas wouldn't win the opener. The way they've continually risen to the big moments in their season from the emotional home opener to the first playoff game in franchise history, it seems like it's just in this team's DNA to put on a show when the attention is at its most intense.
Arledge: I picked the Golden Knights in seven. Vegas wasn't going to drop Game 1 at home. I have a feeling Washington rebounds on Wednesday night to even the series, but I'm not pivoting from anything based on a Game 1 shootout, especially considering it was a Knights win.