As the curtains drew to a close on the three-act play that was Tuesday’s hockey game, it’s hard not to think that the rematch with the Stanley Cup champions was the game of the year so far for the Golden Knights.
Ryan Reaves laid multiple bone-shattering hits and was ejected. Alex Ovechkin scored to put his team ahead. Nate Schmidt netted the game-winner against his old team. There were two goals in 16 seconds. The Golden Knights’ power play was good enough and the penalty kill was perfect.
Add it all up, and it equals the best win of the season, 5-3 against the Washington Capitals at T-Mobile Arena.
“That’s the reason you play hockey is games like that,” Vegas defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “You had lead changes, you had swings, you had them buzzing, then we were going. It was just a great hockey game.”
Act 1: The Ryan Reaves show
The Vegas forward has never been afraid to get physical. It was clear early on when his Washington counterpart stood him up, and Reaves had to look up from the ice at Tom Wilson. He got him back later in the first period, blowing him up on an open-ice hit in the Vegas zone.
On the same shift, he again leveled Wilson and laughed as Wilson came after him as the referees separated the two.
“I’m sure no one likes getting knocked over and laughed at,” Reaves said with a smirk.
Later, he went a little too far in the referee’s eyes. With 4:18 left in the second period, Wilson passed the puck out of his zone, and never saw Reaves blast him. Wilson’s head hit the ice and he did not return.
Reaves was assessed a five-minute major and game misconduct for interference. Reaves said he does not expect to hear from the Department of Player Safety about any further discipline.
“He was just looking at his pass and ran into a lion in the jungle,” Reaves said. “I thought it was shoulder-to-shoulder and I didn’t think it was that late.”
Act 2: The special teams
Washington came into the game with a 27.7 percent success rate with an extra man, sixth-best in the NHL. The Golden Knights’ penalty killers operate at 84.1 percent efficiency, third-best in the NHL. The Golden Knights killed all four of their power-play chances on Tuesday.
The most important was the five minutes after Reaves’ major. Vegas held the Capitals to one shot in the final 4:18 of the second, and two overall during the penalty.
“Right now every unit is kind of really tight with each other,” center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare said. “The guys know exactly how the other guy on the unit plays. So it makes it really easy to remove the doubts when you skate.
“All four players on the ice knew exactly where to go when the puck bounced somewhere.”
The Golden Knights also scored twice when they were up a man. Reaves started it at 2:30 into the game, taking a feed from Cody Eakin and beating Washington goalie Braden Holtby for his sixth of the season.
And just like they succeeded on the long penalty kill, they succeeded on the long power play. Washington’s Nic Dowd went to the box for a double-minor high-sticking penalty with 5:14 left in the third, and Vegas went to work in a 3-3 game.
Alex Tuch looked like he had it, redirecting a Smith shot, but it went off the crossbar, and settled in the crease before a Capital whacked it away. Once the Golden Knights collected themselves, former Capital Nate Schmidt snapped it past Holtby to give his team a one-goal lead with 1:25 to play.
It erased the memories of the previous four power plays, where the Golden Knights looked out of sorts and never mustered a serious threat to Holtby.
“Our power play hadn’t done diddly squat really all night,” Schmidt said. “If I could get some more speed and push them back a little bit, hopefully it would open up something for someone else, and luckily it opened up a little but for myself.”
Act 3: Nate Schmidt’s heroics
It could have only been Schmidt. The defenseman was suspended during the first trip to Washington this year, and has not played the Capitals since they skated out of T-Mobile Arena with the Stanley Cup last June.
So it felt extra nice for him to be the one to win it, and punctuated the game with an empty-netter with 6.9 seconds left. It was his first and second goals of the season.
“It would have been a little bit cooler if it was at the end of last year, but it’s still pretty cool if it’s now,” Schmidt said.