Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Vegas Golden Knights and Washington Capitals was peak hockey, the epitome of what the NHL's version of the sport can be when it's played at its most kinetic pace and with its most dramatic undercurrents.
It was the kind of game that renders apathy towards the sport illogical, like meeting someone who doesn't appreciate, say, oxygen. The kind of game that could convert a non-believer into devoting their lives to hockey. If the NHL was a television series, this would be the episode you show your friends to entice them to binge-watch the rest.
Game 1 was peak hockey because by the time the horn sounded on Vegas' 6-4 victory, one felt legitimately exhausted. The flow was incredible and unyielding: The Capitals and Knights combined for 135 shot attempts in the game. Even sequences that didn't end up with a shot being attempted were exhilarating, as the defensive zone coverage would melt down and players would flail around trying to make a play.
It left the hockey commentariat breathless:
I cannot get enough of this
- Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) May 29, 2018
That is one of the better nights I've ever spent in a hockey rink. #StanleyCup
- Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) May 29, 2018
hook this series straight to my veins and hold all my calls for the next two weeks
- Dimitri Filipovic (@DimFilipovic) May 29, 2018
For all the attention given over the years to impenetrable goalie gear, for all the debates about the size of the net, it's offensive flow that truly provides thrills, not just the goals it produces.
Although goals obviously help.
Game 1 was peak hockey because the Capitals and Knights combined for 10 of them, the first time in eight seasons that the first game of the Final produced that many tallies. This being Vegas, these goals were a figurative all-you-can-eat buffet of offense: a few deflections, a power-play tally, some point-blank shots, some goals created on the forecheck and the rush, goals scored by players who had 43 of them in the regular season like William Karlsson, and goals scored by players who had 31 of them in their eight-year career prior to this playoff run, like Ryan Reaves.
Game 1 was peak hockey because it accentuated one of the realities of the modern NHL: That all four lines have to contribute. Fifteen years ago, a player with considerably less skill than Reaves would have patrolled the fourth line for a team like Vegas, slogging through a perfunctory six minutes per game while waiting around to punch somebody. But in Game 1, Reaves and linemate Tomas Nosek scored the final three goals to tip the balance to Vegas.
"I like where I am," said Reaves. "I like my linemates. I'm not a first-liner. I've always been a goal scorer. Just on the fourth line."
Game 1 was peak hockey because despite those 10 goals, the goalies were ... actually good. Neither Marc-Andre Fleury (24 saves) nor Braden Holtby (28 saves) could be considered a liability despite the game hitting the sportsbooks' "over" in the second period. Watching a goaltending duel inside of a 10-goal game is like watching an Oscar-worthy performance in a Michael Bay film, in that it's completely drowned out by the cacophony around it. But it sorta happened between Fleury and Holtby, despite a pair of sub-.900 save percentages.
Game 1 was peak hockey because, despite the best effort of those goaltenders, no lead was safe. In fact, it was the first game in Stanley Cup Final history that featured four lead changes, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. These were momentum swings for the impatient fan: The first goal of the game was at 7:15 of the first period, and every lead change after that came within at least 7:15 after the opponents' last goal. In peak hockey, no lead is safe. In Game 1, every lead felt temporary, right down to the delirious final three minutes when the Capitals put the pressure on with Holtby pulled.
Game 1 was peak hockey because mistakes were made. Peak hockey can never be a well-played chess match or straight-up goaltending mastery, though both of those genres have their virtues. Peak hockey needs pucks bouncing around with the unpredictability of a ball on a roulette wheel, which is how you get 10 goals in a game. (Granted, peak hockey probably needs better ice than we had in Game 1, but such is hockey in late May in the middle of the desert.) The fact that both teams hated their performances in an incredibly entertaining game speaks volumes about how a lack of mechanical precision leads to chaotic fun.
Game 1 was peak hockey because, for better and sometimes worse, the referees contributed to that chaos. There were four minor penalties called in Game 1, resulting in two power plays and two minutes of 4-on-4 action. While the ideal might be at least two power-play chances per team, the lack of special teams play allowed 5-on-5 action to flourish. But it was also peak hockey because, frankly, you need something to get flustered about when it comes to the officiating. The missed cross-check on John Carlson that set up Reaves's goal, for example.
"Definitely could have been called, based on the first penalty they called in the game. That one's pretty similar and it leads right to a goal in the slot. So if you're comparing apples to apples, I think that one is even worse," said Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen.
- Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) May 29, 2018
Game 1 was peak hockey because as much as we can pray at the altar of offensive flourish and as much as we bemoan cheap shots and injurious borderline plays, peak hockey needs that modicum of controversy that a hit like Wilson's can generate. Not something that overshadows the game ... although, admittedly, anything involving Wilson these days comes close. But something that adds a vitriolic sidebar to the main story, as we see the assaulted -- "He hits me on the blindside. It's a little late. The league's going to take care of it," said Marchessault -- and the assailant -- "I believe it was a good clean hit. It's playoff hockey. There are going to be hits," said Wilson -- traffic in the Rashomon effect after the game.
Game 1 was peak hockey because the emotions stirred in the crowd on the Wilson hit were roughly one one-hundredth of its total emotional output for the game. Peak hockey needs atmosphere, and few Stanley Cup Final games in recent memory had the volume of the Vegas crowd, which was in a towel-waving frenzy 15 minutes before puck drop without a player on the ice. No Stanley Cup Final games in recent memory had the kitschy pageantry of the Golden Knights experience, what with Michael Buffer announcing the lineups and trebuchets and fake sword fights and [checks notes] a first intermission 74th birthday celebration for Motown legend Gladys Knight.
Peak hockey accomplishes the impossible, which is transferring the unparalleled energy inside the arena through the television to those watching around the world. Which, as anyone who watches hockey knows, isn't always easy. But there's a time-tested way to break through the fourth wall while watching the game:
Game 1 was peak hockey because peak hockey needs stakes.
It's the reason an Olympic medal-round game or a Game 7 captivates, and it was one reason why Game 1 was such an incredible ride. Two teams that have played each other twice in their history are now locked into a series of ridiculous pace, increasing physicality and palpable spectacle.
The expansion Vegas Golden Knights are now three wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup. Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals are three losses away from seeing their journey end short of the Cup once again, this time closer than ever before in Ovechkin's career. This was not Game No. 24 at the end of November. This was the final stage of the video game, with both teams trying to reach the kill screen.
"It's going to be a long series, it's going to be a hard series," said Ovechkin.
And we'll all watch to see if Game 1's near-perfect blend of the kinetic, the capricious and the controversial was the tantalizing preview for an epic series, or if we all witnessed the peak hockey of this year's Final.