Alex Tuch stood at the side of the Capitals’ net, his mouth slightly open and a look of shock on his bearded face.
The Golden Knights rookie forward, like most of the announced record crowd of 18,702 at T-Mobile Arena, couldn’t figure out how his one-time shot from the top of the crease didn’t tie the game late in the third period Wednesday night.
“He made a great save,” Tuch explained later.
Braden Holtby’s sprawling stick save on Tuch with 1:59 remaining preserved Washington’s 3-2 victory and was one of several missed opportunities by the Knights in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final.
The win gives the Capitals home-ice advantage in the best-of-seven series heading into Saturday’s Game 3 in Washington, D.C. Since 1939, the lower seed has won the Cup in eight of the 27 series (29.6 percent) when the series is tied at 1.
The Knights faced a similar scenario in the second round against San Jose after losing Game 2 and came back to win in six games.
“We just couldn’t find that extra gear,” Knights defenseman Luca Sbisa said. “It was just one of those games, even at the end, Tuch had that chance and most of the times it goes in. We still feel pretty confident. We’ve been in this situation before.”
The Knights were unable to convert during a 5-on-3 power play for 1:09 early in the third period — they finished 1-for-5 with the man advantage — and outshot Washington 15-6 in the final 20 minutes.
But it was Holtby’s save in the closing minutes that will be remembered as a possible turning point in the series.
“Thank God he’s our goalie,” Capitals star Alex Ovechkin said.
“The save of the year,” Washington forward Jay Beagle said. “Maybe the save of a lifetime. It’s unreal.”
Knights defenseman Shea Theodore crossed the red line and sent a hard dump-in toward the corner to Holtby’s right. The puck took a crazy bounce off the boards, skidded through the crease and ended up on the stick of forward Cody Eakin on the right wing.
Eakin sent a cross-ice pass to Tuch that left Holtby stranded out of position, but the 2016 Vezina Trophy winner stretched out his paddle and somehow smothered Tuch’s drive from point-blank range.
“It was a strange play because the boards have been really true,” said Holtby, who finished with 37 saves after struggling in Game 1. “I was just trying to get something there, trying to seal where I thought (Tuch) was trying to shoot that, and luckily it hit me.”
Said Tuch: “I’ve got to pick the puck up, and I’ve got to bury it.”
James Neal scored in the first period for the Knights, and Theodore added a power-play goal that brought the Knights within 3-2 with 2:13 remaining in the second period.
But Washington improved to 9-3 on the road in the postseason behind a goal and two assists from center Lars Eller and an inspired effort from Ovechkin, who had a goal and dished out five hits.
“I thought we had a lot of chances tonight,” Knights coach Gerard Gallant said. “We didn’t play our best game. But we had 39 shots and still created a lot. It’s one of those games where Holtby played really well. He was probably the difference in the hockey game.”
Eller moved up to the second line and the top power-play unit for Washington when leading scorer Evgeny Kuznetsov was injured in the first period, and he proved to be a handful for the Knights.
Washington benefited from a cross-checking penalty by Tuch to take a 2-1 lead at 5:38 of the second period. Eller sent a pass through the crease to Ovechkin in his office at the left faceoff circle, and he one-timed it past Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (23 saves) for his 13th of the postseason.
Eller then helped put the Capitals ahead 3-1 a little more than four minutes later when he entered the zone with speed and reversed the puck to Brooks Orpik. The defenseman’s shot appeared to hit Tuch and slipped past Fleury, ending a 220-game goal drought for Orpik.
“The more I am out there, the better I feel with the puck, better flow in my game,” Eller said, “and I knew from the Tampa series that I have really good chemistry with (Jakub) Vrana and (T.J.) Oshie, so it wasn’t really a surprise for me when we did some good things when we were put back together.”
Washington’s game plan for slowing down the Knights was clear in the first period, as the Capitals took the body at every opportunity. Ovechkin dished out a tone-setting check on defenseman Brayden McNabb behind the net 1:12 into the game, and Washington finished the period with 22 of its 46 hits.
Despite the physical play, the Knights took the lead at 7:58 when Sbisa lobbed the puck out of his own zone and Capitals defenseman Dmitry Orlov committed an E-6 at his own blue line, failing to glove it down. Neal gathered the loose puck and fired a shot that beat Holtby high to the glove side for his fifth goal of the playoffs.
The Capitals responded with a strong push over the latter half of the first and tied the game with 2:33 left when Eller finished off a tic-tac-toe passing sequence after winning a faceoff in the offensive zone.
“You can’t win or lose a series in the first two games,” Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “Our guys are ready to get on the road and get back to playing our game. We did a great job the first 10 minutes of the game and then we got sucked in a little bit to the transition game they wanted to play.”
1. Minor change. Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant made a small adjustment to his lineup, moving winger David Perron back to the second line with Erik Haula and James Neal. Alex Tuch slid to the third line alongside Cody Eakin and Ryan Carpenter.
2. To the room. Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov, the leading scorer in the postseason with 25 points, was injured after a hard hit from Knights defenseman Brayden McNabb with 5:18 left in the first period. Kuznetsov appeared to be favoring his hand as he went to the dressing room, and he did not return.
3. Taken down. Knights forward Ryan Carpenter was hauled down by defenseman Dmitry Orlov on a partial breakaway midway through the second period. The fans at T-Mobile Arena wanted a penalty shot to be awarded, but Orlov only got two minutes for hooking and the Knights were unable to convert on the power play.
David Schoen Review-Journal