Appearing in just their second Stanley Cup Final in franchise history, the Caps skated into Game 2 of their series against Vegas still looking for the team’s first-ever Final win, a chaotic series opener having fallen in the Knights’ favor.
To capture that first win, they’d need everyone on board, from their elite captain to their grizzled veteran blueliner. They’d need a bit of luck and some special teams dominance.
And they’d need the save of a lifetime.
Now one year later, a look back at this pivotal moment in the Caps’ Cup run.
Game 1 of the series was exciting, to say the least, but it probably can’t be said that it was good hockey - and it certainly can’t be said that the Caps played their best. Not for the first time, the odds and history both seem to be against the Caps.
Thankfully they’ll have plenty of support in their quest to defy history, as Caps fans from near and (very) far once again pour into Capital One Arena for a watch party...
hello from the arena where the Caps are not playing pic.twitter.com/XhKmJbMueW— Sarah Larimer (@slarimer) May 30, 2018
...or head west to rock the red — and the occasional bedazzled jumpsuit — at T-Mobile:
Before the game, ownership attempts to break up those swaths of visitor red:
@GoldenKnights owner Bill Foley tells @LVSportsBiz he wants to break up blocks of @Capitals fans sitting at @TMobileArena by breaking up blocks on secondary ticket sale market but he doesn't know if it could be done by today's Game2https://t.co/V4PciKZrSu @sbjsbd @darrenrovell pic.twitter.com/e0UvmZRPkD— LVSportsBiz.com (@LVSportsBiz) May 30, 2018
Narrator: It could not be done.
Among the many, many Caps fans at T-Mobile Arena, just hoping to see the team pick up their first Cup Final win? About 200 Monumental Sports employees, half of a group flown to Vegas by owner Ted Leonsis for the game and a night in Sin City.
“He’s thinking of us as part of a family, as part of the experience. There’s no reason for him to do it. All I can say is a big thanks to Ted and his family for the opportunity, and for truly making this into something memorable for all of us here in the company.” - Omar Castro, Guest Relations, Monumental (Washington Post, 5/29/18)
Of course, not all DC-area residents are rooting for the visitors.
Bryce Harper shown on the jumbotron and the Capitals fans in the building all cheer.— Jesse Granger (@JesseGranger_) May 30, 2018
Then he says "Go Knights Go."
It didn’t take too long for the hockey world to learn that Vegas was not going to be your typical hockey city, and this apparently will be twice as true during the playoffs.
Showgirls at the glass behind the Capitals net during warmups. pic.twitter.com/OOheriEyOI— Dan Rosen (@drosennhl) May 30, 2018
Nothing says hockey like feathers and sequins!
(Amazingly this will not be the least amount of clothing worn behind that exact glass during this series.)
(But more about that later.)
Meanwhile Brett Connolly steps in to sum up exactly how the Caps performed on the long and sometimes bumpy road that’s brought them to this point... and does a pretty good job of it, FCC fines be damned.
It’s almost time for puck drop — but before the hockey can begin, there is the usual subtlety that is the Vegas pregame show, followed by a performance by Vegas-born band Imagine Dragons:
Hey, that song sounded familiar.
Start of 1st Period
1st period, 12:02 remaining
As was the case in Game 1, Vegas wastes little time getting on the board, something they’ve done on a regular basis during their surprising playoff run. This time around, they’re assisted by an unfortunate miss on an attempt to glove the puck by Dmitry Orlov; the puck instead bounces to a streaking James Neal, who snipes it top corner past Holtby for the 1-0 lead.
Oh, and by the way, Vegas is good when scoring first. So... there’s that.
The @GoldenKnights have scored the first goal in all nine home games this postseason, with each coming in the first period (including six within the first 8:00). #NHLStats #StanleyCup pic.twitter.com/o3EA5oU4q8— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) May 31, 2018
Yes, dear friends, it appears as if the Caps have a bit of a mountain to climb once more.
1st period, 5:18 remaining
That mountain gets a bit steeper when late in the first period, Vegas’s Brayden McNabb lands a devastating hit on Evgeny Kuznetsov:
No call on the play, Kuznetsov leaves the game, and things are starting to look... bleak.
1st period, 2:33 remaining
But as has often been the case so far this postseason, when the Caps need someone to step up and be the hero, a hero emerges - and not for the first (or last) time, that hero is Lars Eller:
What a pass indeed. Goodness.
End of 1st Period: Caps 1, Golden Knights 1
Start of 2nd period
2nd period, 17:56 remaining
NHL officiating is perfect and infallible and never an issue in the playoffs, which is why the on-ice officials were 100% correct in issuing a two-minute penalty to Brooks Orpik for, um, being in the vicinity when James Neal decided to punch himself in the face:
That’s no way to talk to yourself, Mr. Neal.
2nd period, 14:22 remaining
The Caps emerge from Orpik’s “penalty” unscathed, and a few minutes later are granted their own chance with the extra man. Less than 30 seconds elapse on a minor to Alex Tuch before Eller collects a Backstrom pass and sets up a sneaky Alex Ovechkin for the go-ahead goal.
Amazing to think that despite his long and storied career, there are still “firsts” to accomplish, but there you have it - Alex Ovechkin’s very first career Cup Final goal.
And the crowd goes wild!
2nd period, 10:19 remaining
So we’ve had Eller playing the somewhat likely hero. We’ve had Ovechkin playing the likeliest of heroes. All that’s missing to round out the trio is the unlikeliest of heroes - so unlikely that even he didn’t think he’d be playing that role when the series began...
And the bench goes wild!
“Brooksie doesn’t score a lot of goals, but that was a huge one. To have success in the playoffs, you need guys – every single guy – chipping in and sometimes they need to chip in in ways that they don’t always do, and Brooksie came up huge for us. It was nice to see him join the rush. He was great tonight; he was one of the difference makers.” - Lars Eller (Dump ‘N Chase, 5/31/18)
Speaking of difference makers, Eller picks up an assist on Orpik’s goal, his third point of the night - all earned since the departure of Kuznetsov.
Eller stepped up for Capitals when Backstrom was injured and now is doing it again since Kuznetsov was hurt. 1G, 2A since Kuznetsov left the game.— Tom Gulitti (@TomGulittiNHL) May 31, 2018
“You lose one of our top players... your bench sort of rallies around it. Obviously, a guy like Lars Eller, when all of a sudden Kuzy’s not back, Lars has to step into that role. He just stepped up.” - Barry Trotz (Washington Post, 5/30/18)
Favorite tigers ranked:— Michael Jenkins (@JenksNBCS) May 31, 2018
1) Lars Eller
2nd period, 2:33 remaining
The Caps have a two-goal lead, a lead that some clever pundits might say is the most dangerous lead in hockey.
Caps fans would probably say the same thing.
And so it comes to pass that the Caps’ two-goal lead shrinks to one when late in the second period, T.J. Oshie is sent to the box on an interference call and the Knights take just 20 seconds to cash in on a Shea Theodore wrister from the point.
A one-goal cushion headed into the third period of a Stanley Cup Final game? Hold onto your butts, folks.
End of 2nd Period: Caps 3, Golden Knights 2
Start of 3rd period
3rd period, 16:47 remaining
Clinging to a slim lead in the third period of a critical Game 2, a really good way to grab momentum and to hang onto it is to play smart and disciplined. No selfish plays, no fancy moves, no dumb penal-...
Tom Wilson interference? Never!! pic.twitter.com/sCGQ7NVCt7— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) May 31, 2018
3rd period, 15:55 remaining
Okay, so there’s a player in the box, but that’s not the end of the world. Time to lock things down and above all else avoid taking anoth-
So the Caps now find themselves shorthanded by two (not to mention without two of their better penalty-killers) with plenty of time for Vegas to tie this sucker up. These are the times in which past Caps’ squads have faltered, undone by blown leads and bad penalties.
Great penalty kill by the Caps. I mean that was terrific. Vegas did not have one good scoring chance— Scott Abraham (@ScottABC7) May 31, 2018
Washington kills off both penalties. Huge moment in the game and Holtby and the Caps came up big.— Jesse Granger (@JesseGranger_) May 31, 2018
And it’s about to get bigger.
3rd period, 1:59 remaining
Penalties killed, the Caps start to tighten up defensively, holding Vegas without a shot for a stretch of over 10 minutes in the middle of the period until finally just a few minutes remain in regulation.
And then a seemingly innocent dump-in turns into chaos... and an iconic moment is born.
Mike Vogel describes the play as it unfolds:
With the Caps nursing a 3-2 lead late in the critical Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Golden Knights in Vegas, an innocent looking dump-in suddenly morphed into a crucial moment in the contest. Vegas defenseman Shea Theodore lofted the puck into the corner of the Washington zone, where it took an odd carom and bounded sharply to the right, through the crease in front of Holtby, and directly to the stick blade of Vegas center Cody Eakin. Eakin quickly fed it to Alex Tuch, who was at the top of the paint on the left side.
As the puck reached Tuch and the Vegas forward shot at the yawning Washington net, Holtby reacted by sprawling out desperately with his right arm, thrusting the paddle portion of his stick across to cover as much area as possible. With a combination of reflex and athleticism, Holtby was able to get the fullest part of the paddle on the shot, and he was able to use his blocker to clamp the puck safely to the ice, preventing any possible rebound.
Needless to say, Twitter is abuzz.
Greatest save I've ever seen!— OlieKolzig (@OlieKolzig37) May 31, 2018
Goalies around the world to Braden Holtby! pic.twitter.com/4ITNtHkyOC— Chris Mason (@cmace30) May 31, 2018
Fans at the DC watch party go berserk.
Holtby’s incredible save captured real time. Wow pic.twitter.com/e7KTjgo2QR— Matthew Paras (@Matthew_Paras) May 31, 2018
Meanwhile on the bench... yeah.
“As soon as I gathered the puck, and I got to my feet, my adrenaline was obviously through the roof like everybody else. I mean, everybody saw Ovi’s face on the bench. If that goes in …. and they tie it … who knows?
But then I squirted my water bottle, and I followed a drop all the way to the ice, and I forgot about it. I’m not even just saying that. It was just gone. Too much hockey left.” - Braden Holtby (Players’ Tribune, 3/6/19)
End of Game: Caps 3, Golden Knights 2; Caps even series 1-1
After the game, much of the chatter is about that incredible Holtby save, and for good reason.
“I don’t know how to say it. It’s incredible. In that moment he made that save, he didn’t stop, he didn’t quit the play and it’s unbelievable. I don’t know what to say.” - Alex Ovechkin (NHL, 5/31/18)
Ovechkin on what he was thinking on bench when Holtby made the save on Tuch.— Tom Gulitti (@TomGulittiNHL) May 31, 2018
“Thank God he’s our goalie.”
Jay Beagle on Braden Holtby’s last great save: “The save of the year....maybe the save of a lifetime.” #Caps— Brian McNally (@bmcnally14) May 31, 2018
“Once he made that save I knew we were going to win the game.” — #ALLCAPS Coach Barry Trotz on Braden Holtby’s miraculous stop on Alex Tuch late in Wednesday’s Game 2 victory. pic.twitter.com/xLInSYtzXw— Tarik El-Bashir (@Tarik_ElBashir) May 31, 2018
But the game boils down to much more than a single stop on a single play, as the man himself notes postgame:
Braden Holtby on the save heard 'round the world being heard 'round the world: "We have a goal in mind that will be a lot bigger than some save and social media."— Jesse Dougherty (@dougherty_jesse) May 31, 2018
This is a victory over 40 years in the making, the first time a Caps team has won a Stanley Cup Final game, and it’s an exhilarating moment - and just another step toward their ultimate goal.
In Vegas, the Caps prepare to fly back home; in DC, more than 14,000 rabid Caps fans watch the final seconds of the game on the Capital One Arena screen before taking the celebration to the streets.
The crowd streamed out into a light rain, and some would stand on the steps of the National Portrait Gallery to chant “We want the Cup!” Before they all left the arena, though, an announcer shouted “Do you believe?” As if he even had to ask. (Washington Post, 5/31/18)
All square at one win apiece, the series now shifts to DC - and there’s a feeling that something else has shifted, as well.
“But in a spring of gritty, defining moments, Game 2 stands as the grittiest, the most important – at least for the moment – and the one that may end up helping define them as champions.” (The Athletic, 5/31/18)
One down. Three more to go.