On a night when Sin City provided a glitzy, entertaining, over-the-top show for all the hockey world to see, a member of the supporting cast played the hero’s role in a wild final act.
Fourth-line winger Tomas Nosek scored the go-ahead goal midway through the third period Monday before adding an empty netter as the expansion Vegas Golden Knights fought back from deficits of 3-2 and 4-3 to defeat the Washington Capitals 6-4 in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final.
The party just off the famed strip where there’s a casino or a street performer at nearly every turn started with a concert by rapper Lil Jon and continued with on-ice player introductions from famed ring announcer Michael Buffer.
But it was a 25-year-old from the Czech Republic that fans at a raucous T-Mobile Arena were celebrating as the Knights inched closer to an improbable championship.
“It’s just (the) first win,” said Nosek, who was plucked from the Detroit Red Wings in the expansion draft not even 12 months ago. ”Three more and I’ll be more excited.”
Three wins away from the craziest Cup victory imaginable.
Reilly Smith, with a goal and an assist, Colin Miller, William Karlsson and Ryan Reaves also scored for the Knights, who got 24 saves from Marc-Andre Fleury. Deryk Engelland chipped in with two assists.
Nicklas Backstrom, with a goal and an assist, Brett Connolly, John Carlson and Tom Wilson replied for the Capitals. T.J. Oshie added two assists, while Braden Holtby made 28 saves.
Game 2 goes Wednesday in Vegas before the best-of-seven series switches to Washington for Games 3 and 4.
“We know we didn’t play our best,” Backstrom said. ”We’ve got to come out with a better effort.”
Nosek’s winner at 9:44 of the final period came after Vegas defenceman Shea Theodore moved down the boards and put his wide-open teammate’s second goal of the playoffs on a silver platter at the side of Holtby’s net.
“I just told myself to focus on the puck and hit it at the right time,” Nosek said. ”I expected (the pass) the whole time.”
The Capitals pressed late with Holtby on the bench, but Lars Eller flubbed a golden opportunity on the doorstep with Fleury at his mercy before Nosek sealed it with three seconds left.
“There were some swings, some momentum (shifts) on both sides,” said Fleury, who came in with a .947 save percentage in the playoffs. ”Nobody panicked and it paid off.”
Washington went up 4-3 just 70 seconds into the third when Fleury accidentally kicked Wilson’s deflection into his own net for the big winger’s fourth.
But Vegas came right back 1:31 later when Reaves, a fourth liner who scored the series clincher in the Western Conference final against the Winnipeg Jets, banged home his second.
“Real happy for them,” Fleury said of Reaves and Nosek. ”They’re guys that work hard every game, every practice.”
Carlson hit his second post of the night a few minutes later on Fleury before Smith came right back and found iron at the other end.
Wilson then delivered a blindside hit on Jonathan Marchessault with the puck nowhere near the Vegas centre, but was only assessed two-minute penalty for interference, while David Perron went off for cross checking in the ensuing scuffle.
THE GOLDEN KNIGHTS TAKE A 1-0 SERIES LEAD IN THE
— Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) May 29, 2018
Suspended three games earlier in the playoffs for a dangerous hit, Wilson thought the contact was clean.
“He’d probably say he shouldn’t have admired his pass and I’m just finishing my check,” he said. ”I haven’t slowed it down (on video).”
The Knights, not surprisingly, felt differently.
“I never saw it coming,” Marchessault said. ”He hits me on the blindside. It’s a little late.
“The league’s going to take care of it.”
Added the bruising Reaves: “It’s just Wilson doing what Wilson does.”
Tied 2-2 after a back-and-forth first, Smith swatted home his third at 3:21 of the second after Marchessault grazed the crossbar moments earlier, but the Capitals responded with Carlson’s fourth at 8:29 on a night where neither team was satisfied with its defensive effort.
“For our group, it’s not good enough,” Marchessault said. ”We gave them too many chances. That’s the way it went … at the end of the day it’s the win that’s most important.”
The electric atmosphere around T-Mobile Arena started two hours prior to the late-afternoon start time, with Lil Jon revving up the crowd in a packed plaza outside the rink before a pre-game spectacle on the ice with actors portraying a knight and his archers defeating an invading army — in this case, the Capitals.
Buffer then provided his patented ”Let’s Get Ready To Rumble!” call prior to introducing the starting lineups, but struggled with some of the names.
A drum line with flashing lights pumped up the crowd during breaks, while Canadian-born professional fan Cameron Hughes danced and hurled t-shirts into the stands.
Vegas honoured military veterans in the first intermission, marking Memorial Day with a rendition of “God Bless America” sung by seven-time Grammy Award-winner Gladys Knight, which was followed by an abbreviated Cirque de Soleil performance during a TV timeout in the second.
“Oh, man. It was crazy,” Reaves said of the atmosphere. ”Even going out for warmups, usually you take a look at all the pucks so you don’t fall on them, but I looked up and everybody was in the building already.
“I kinda got some chills.”
The Knights opened the scoring at 7:15 of the first when Miller buried his first with a power-play blast that beat a screened Holtby, but the Capitals equalized at 14:41 when Connolly tipped his fifth between his own legs.
Washington went ahead just 42 seconds later when Backstrom, who suffered a hand injury in the second round that forced him to miss four games, scored his fifth.
But Karlsson jammed in his seventh shortside with 1:41 left in the period to send the teams to the locker rooms tied 2-2 following a frenetic opening 20 minutes.
Monday marked the first game for the Capitals in the final since their only other appearance in 1998 when they were swept in four straight by Detroit.
Washington had failed to get beyond the second round of the playoffs in the 20 years since, including Alex Ovechkin’s entire career, before beating the Pittsburgh Penguins this spring to qualify for the Eastern Conference final against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Golden Knights, who brushed aside the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and the Jets to advance to the Cup final in a stunning first season, played just their 98th game in franchise history.
“Lot of up and down. A lot of lead changes,” Knights defenceman Nate Schmidt said of Monday night. ”A lot of times you feel like the game is going in one direction and then they score and we score.
“The fans got their money’s worth tonight.”
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press