LAS VEGAS (AP) — Winning a Stanley Cup isn’t meant to be easy, something that even the novice hockey fans in Las Vegas now surely understand.
No need to tell it to the Washington Capitals. They’ve spent 43 seasons chasing the elusive Cup, only to find an expansion team — of all things — in the way of finally ending the drought.
The battle for hockey supremacy heads to the nation’s capital all tied up 1-1 after a pair of games as entertaining as anything on the Las Vegas Strip. The goals keep coming and so do the hits, including one Wednesday night on Evgeny Kuznetsov that both knocked him out of the game and seemed to wake Washington out of its daze.
Their top playoff scorer out, the Caps rallied for three straight goals that stopped — at least for a moment — a team that has been virtually unstoppable throughout the playoffs.
“It galvanized us as a group,” Caps coach Barry Trotz said. “I think it might be a turning point for us.”
On a night when Alex Ovechkin scored the first Stanley Cup Final goal of his 13-year NHL career to give the Caps a lead they somehow managed to hold onto even while being outplayed and outshot by the Knights in the third period, Washington won a final-round game for the first time ever to make the flight back home a lot sweeter.
For the Capitals it means service held, with the next two games in far friendlier confines at home.
For the Knights, it was a golden opportunity gone awry.
They were 7-1 in the playoffs at home, 11-1 overall when scoring the first goal. So when James Neal scored barely eight minutes into the game, the party was on.
And then, suddenly, it was off. At least for now.
Credit some of that to the resilience of the Caps, who were down a goal when Kuznetsov was knocked out of the game. Give a tip of the hat to Ovechkin, too, who scored the go-ahead goal in the second period.
But when the story of this Cup Final is finally written it may hinge on a hit by Brayden McNabb on Kuznetsov as he had the puck along the boards late in the first period. McNabb slammed into Kuznetsov with a high check and Kuznetsov immediately bent over holding his arm with what appeared to be a wrist injury.
Another team might have folded in front of the raucous crowd of 18,702. But the Caps have been resilient all the way through the playoffs, and this game was no exception.
“It was all about commitment. We blocked shots and played for each other,” forward Nicklas Backstrom said. “It’s good to win and go back to Washington.”
On a 98-degree day in Las Vegas, the action on the ice was as hot as the weather outside. The Knights dominated play at times and outshot the Caps 39-26, but could not deliver on a 5-on-3 power play in the scoreless third period.
When Alex Tuch was denied on a spectacular stick save with 1:59 to play by Braden Holtby, the Knights would not be lucky on this night in the biggest game of chance on the Strip. Their Game 1 win, after all, included the Caps’ Lars Eller missing a wide-open net from point-blank range in the final minutes.
“To me it was the hockey gods evening it up from the last game,” Trotz said. “Once he made that save I knew we were going to win the game.”
Las Vegas pulled out all the stops to make the first two games as memorable off the ice as they have been on the ice. The Imagine Dragons — a Vegas Born group — sang just before the puck dropped and a flyover by the Air Force’s latest F-35 jets shook the building, as did the applause later between periods when the pilots appeared in front of the Knight’s faux castle to cheer the team on.
But just as Game 1 seemed to shift in the Knights’ favor after Jonathan Marchessault was knocked to the ice on what appeared to be a late hit by Washington’s Tom Wilson, this game seemed to turn on that hit by McNabb with the Knights up 1-0.
Not only did Washington score three straight goals, one of them came from the player who must be spectacular if the Capitals are forced to play without Kuznetsov for any length of time in the finals.
Ovechkin has toiled for the Capitals since being picked first in the 2004 draft, but had never played in a Stanley Cup Final until Game 1 — and never scored in one until Wednesday.
“He’s the heart and soul of this team,” Washington defenseman John Carlson said. “He does so much and doesn’t get credit. We love him to death. He’s our leader and it’s nice to see him get that big goal for us.”
For the Knights it was a rare whiff in a season like no other. They’ve been one of the great stories in sports, an expansion team in its first season playing for the championship of the NHL.
But every great story needs a great ending, and for the Knights to write one they’re now going to have to win at least one game on the road.
“It’s the Stanley Cup final, it’s little things,” said Knights forward Erik Haula. “Nobody said it’s gonna be a 4-0 series. It’s gonna be ups and downs. We’ve been here before, we’ve been good on the road. Just put this behind us, just learn from your mistake.”
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg