LAS VEGAS — A goal from the most unlikely source and a jaw-dropping save has the Washington Capitals back on even terms in the Stanley Cup final.
Brooks Orpik scored for the first time in 220 games and Braden Holtby made 37 stops, including a miraculous effort with two minutes to go, as the Capitals defeated the Vegas Golden Knights 3-2 on Wednesday night to level the best-of-seven series 1-1.
"A couple of bounces didn’t go our way last game," said Holtby, whose team fell 6-4 in Monday’s opener. "We knew if we just stuck with it, did the right things, something would go our way."
What went their way was Orpik, a veteran defenceman whose last goal came on Feb. 16, 2016, scoring what turned out to be the winner before Holtby robbed Alex Tuch with a desperation paddle save after the puck took a weird bounce off the glass.
"To me, it was the Hockey Gods," Washington head coach Barry Trotz said.
"Save of the year. Maybe the save of a lifetime," Capitals forward Jay Beagle added. "It’s unreal."
Bumped up to the second line after No. 1 centre Evgeny Kuznetsov left with an upper-body injury in the first period, Lars Eller had a goal and two assists, while Alex Ovechkin also scored. Andre Burakovsky chipped in with two assists of his own as the Capitals won their first-ever game in a Stanley Cup final.
James Neal and Shea Theodore replied for the expansion Knights. Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 23 shots in taking the loss.
The series now switches to Washington for Game 3 on Saturday and Game 4 on Monday. Game 5 will be back in Vegas next Thursday.
With temperatures soaring as high as 37 C in the hours leading up to the late-afternoon puck drop at T-Mobile Arena, the Capitals put in a much better effort on the heels of Monday’s sloppy performance from both teams.
"We did a good job all around on a lot of areas," Trotz said. "We cleaned a few things. There’s some areas that we’ve still go to adjust, but it was a step forward."
After killing off a penalty early in the second period, Washington pushed ahead on a power play of its own at 5:38 when Ovechkin scored his 13th goal of the playoffs from a tight angle thanks to Eller’s slick cross-ice pass.
Eller then set up Orpik, who last scored in the post-season all the way back in April 2014, on a shot that struck the leg of Vegas forward Cody Eakin and bounced past Fleury at 9:41 to make it 3-1.
"Brooksy doesn’t score a lot of goals, but that was a huge one," Eller said of the 37-year-old blue liner. "To have success in the playoffs you need every single guy chipping in."
Orpik wasn’t available to the media after the game because he was getting stitches from the Capitals’ medical staff.
"He’s old-school," Washington forward T.J. Oshie said. "To see him get rewarded with a goal at a big time, it makes me feel good.
"I imagine he feels great."
The Knights entered Monday with a 7-1 home record in the post-season — outscoring opponents by 31-16 in the process — and made it 3-2 with 2:13 left in the second when Theodore scored his third on a seeing-eye snapshot from the point through traffic on a power play.
Vegas got a 5-on-3 man advantage for 1:09 when Tom Wilson took an interference penalty and Eller was whistled for hooking early in the third, but Holtby, who allowed five goals on 33 shots in Game 1 after posting back-to-back shutouts to close out the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference final, managed to hold the fort.
"We had good looks," Knights forward Jonathan Marchessault said. "We just need to be more selfish and shoot the puck. The plays were there."
Holtby then made that diving paddle stop on Tuch that will be replayed over and over.
"Thank God he’s our goalie," Ovechkin said.
"I’ve got to bury that," Tuch lamented.
The Knights continued to push and pulled Fleury for an extra attacker, but Holtby and the Capitals kept them off the scoreboard the rest of the way to knot the series and wrestle away home-ice advantage.
The usual pre-game pomp at T-Mobile Arena, which includes showgirls lining the glass in the Washington end during warmups and a knight defeating an opponent in a sword battle on the ice, also featured a performance by Las Vegas band Imagine Dragons and an appearance by UFC legend Randy Couture.
The teams promised a tighter checking game after Monday’s 10-goal outburst, and Holtby and Fleury looked much better early before Neal opened the scoring at 7:58 of the first.
The winger knocked teammate Luca Sbisa’s flipped clearing attempt out of midair at the offensive blue line in front of Dmitry Orlov, who tried to knock the puck down with his glove, before stepping past the Capitals defenceman and beating Holtby for his fifth.
The Knights have scored first in all nine of their playoff home games, with each occurring in first period and six coming inside eight minutes.
Kuznetsov, who tops the post-season scoring race with 25 points, took a big hit from Brayden McNabb later in the period and crumpled to the ice holding his left arm.
The Russian centre, who skated quickly to the bench and went straight to the locker room, did not return with what the team called an upper-body injury. Trotz did not provide an update when asked about Kuznetsov’s status at his press conference.
The same way Wilson’s hit on Vegas leading scorer Jonathan Marchessault in Game 1 sparked the Knights, the collision seemed to wake up the Capitals as Eller finished off a nice passing play by scoring his sixth with 2:33 left on the clock.
With the teams playing 4-on-4, Burakovsky fed Michal Kempny, who fooled Fleury by passing to Eller for a wide-open net instead of shooting.
Eller signed a five-year, US$17.5-million contract extension in February, and now has the same amount of goals (six) in these playoffs as he did in the first 50 post-season games of his career.
"The more I’m out there, the more I feel on the puck — better flow in my game," Eller said. "We were a little more on our toes tonight."
Notes: The Knights are the first team to make the Stanley Cup in their first season since the 1967-68 St. Louis Blues, although an expansion club was guaranteed a spot in the final that year after the NHL expanded from six to 12 franchises. … The Capitals’ only other trip the Cup came in 1998 when they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings.