And yet even without Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby playing a starring role on opening night, it’s tough to imagine a much better way for the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins to kick off a series that could be epic.
Oshie summoned forth his inner Sochi and delivered a standout performance – finishing off a hat trick with a wraparound 9:33 into overtime. He tied the game in the second period, put the Capitals ahead in the third and sent the fans home hatless while staking Washington to a 1-0 series lead.
“That’s the kind of the stuff you dream about when you’re a kid playing in the backyard by yourself,” said Oshie. “It was awesome.”
This was a game that ebbed and flowed, with each team enjoying long stretches of dominance. The Capitals had the run of play through most of the overtime period and saw Matt Murray turn away seven shots before Oshie ended it.
He decided to go for the wraparound because of a scouting report on the 21-year-old rookie goalie. Washington wants to get the six-foot-four Murray moving in his crease.
“We know he’s a big goaltender and we know he likes to use his body to stop pucks,” said Oshie.
Murray actually beat him to the post, but had the puck roll on its side and barely cross the goal-line. Hats immediately flooded the Verizon Center ice, but it took several minutes – and at least four different replay angles – to confirm it was in.
The Penguins goalie still wasn’t convinced they made the right decision.
“The ref called it a goal on the ice,” said Murray. “I don’t know how he could have possibly seen it from his angle. But I thought I had it, to be honest. I knew it was close but I thought it never fully crossed the line.
“I thought it was close enough that it would be inconclusive, but I’m not going to go any further than that.”
What stood out most after watching the top two teams in the Eastern Conference go at one another is how close the margin between them is. They each had a puck go off the post and sit agonizingly long in the crease before getting swept to safety in the third period.
There is no tougher assignment in this series than trying to play defence, with players on both sides of the equation repeatedly victimized for dangerous scoring chances or goals.
The Bonino-Carl Hagelin–Phil Kessel line was best in class for Pittsburgh, with Bonino pulling an inside-out move to send Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt crashing to the ice on the Penguins’ opening goal before tying it 3-3 on a knuckling shot with a little more than half a period to play.
Crosby had a decent look with his dangerous backhand on the opening shift, but didn’t find himself with many quality chances beyond that. His coach, Mike Sullivan, felt that the attention paid to his line allowed the Bonino group to accomplish more.
All and all, the Penguins captain saw a lot of positives from a game where they poured 45 shots on Braden Holtby.
“If we get those chances I think every game, we like the chance we have of winning,” said Crosby.
This has the makings of a long, tough series.
Pittsburgh, after all, hasn’t dropped consecutive games since the middle of December and will need to get a victory in Game 2 on Saturday night to keep that astonishing run alive.
These teams are more known for their scoring prowess, but they went at each other physically in the opener. A dangerous knee-on-knee hit by Washington’s Tom Wilson on Conor Sheary warrants a close examination from the department of player safety, but the intensity was largely contained between the lines of acceptable behaviour.
“It’s going to be something like this every game I feel like, so we might as well get used to it,” said Capitals centre Nicklas Backstrom.
“It’s always fun when we win those games because to be honest with you, they’re hard games,” added Ovechkin. “You have to be fresh all the time, try to be fresh all the time. You have to take a little bit shorter shifts.”
Oshie was acquired from St. Louis in trade last summer but fits in quite well with a Capitals team trying to shake a reputation of not rising to the occasion. While the 29-year-old made a name for himself by scoring four of six shootout attempts in a memorable game against the host Russians during the 2014 Sochi Olympics, his previous playoff experience with the Blues was littered with disappointment.
Inevitably, his production would dry up each spring and his team would fall short.
“Just haven’t found the net enough,” he said. “The hit on me is usually that I pass too much maybe that’s the reason tonight I was shooting a little bit more. I don’t know.
“Just haven’t had success in the past and hopefully this can continue – it’s feeling good right now.”
Yes, opportunity is in the air.
Not only are there a lot of eyeballs tracking this series, but the team that emerges from it will be favoured to reach the Stanley Cup final. Of course, if we learned anything from Game 1, it’s that nothing can be taken for granted.
Right now this is still far too close to call.