LAS VEGAS — Gerard Gallant and the Vegas Golden Knights still think Tom Wilson’s third-period hit on Jonathan Marchessault in the Stanley Cup Final opener was too late and probably a bit dirty.
The coach also believes it sparked his team’s comeback victory in that Game 1 thriller.
So while he wasn’t happy to hear Wilson will face no discipline from the NHL, Gallant is hoping his team will remember the hit — and more importantly, how they played right after it — when they attempt to take a 2-0 series lead on the Washington Capitals on Wednesday night on the Strip.
“The good thing about the hit is it really woke our team up,” Gallant said after an optional practice at the Golden Knights’ suburban training complex. “I think it was a 4-4 game?”
Indeed, two novice Stanley Cup finalists were deep into an entertainingly ramshackle opener, but the Knights took charge after that fateful collision left Marchessault sprawled on the ice. Vegas quickly got Tomas Nosek’s go-ahead goal , eventually won 6-4 and surged one game closer to an improbable championship.
The focused aggression necessary to be a successful postseason team is a delicate concoction. The Golden Knights and Caps both had it during the conference playoffs, but they both admit it got away from them in Game 1.
“I think both teams can be better,” Washington coach Barry Trotz said. “It was a pretty sloppy game.”
After one game to get used to the sky-high stakes of the last round of this tournament, both teams intend to channel their nervous energy more constructively in the future. Both coaches stressed the importance of discipline, completing assignments and not allowing the frenetic Vegas crowd to overwhelm their emotions.
“There’s obviously nerves,” Washington’s Jay Beagle said. “I’m not surprised at anything anymore, but in the Stanley Cup Final, usually it’s 2-1 or 1-0, not (6-4). But you don’t know what to expect from a team that you don’t know that much. Now we’ve got to know them a little bit more.”
The mistakes that worry coaches also lead to exciting hockey, and the opener was thoroughly entertaining even before Wilson lowered the boom on Marchessault. The teams combined for a Final-record four lead changes in the highest-scoring opener in eight years for this final round.
Wilson, who served a three-game suspension in the second round for breaking the jaw of Pittsburgh’s Zach Aston-Reese, and the Capitals still insist the hard-charging forward did nothing wrong when he leveled the Golden Knights’ top playoff scorer.
“It’s within the rules,” Wilson said after practice at T-Mobile Arena. “It’s a clean hit. I don’t know why it got so much media attention, to be honest. It’s a hard hit, but that’s the day and age we’re in. ... I’m trying to play my game. There’s a lot of those hits that are going on, but it’s the Stanley Cup Final, and it’s within the rules.”
The NHL Department of Player Safety agreed when it decided not to discipline Wilson for the shoulder-to-shoulder hit, clearly deciding that Wilson’s timing wasn’t extraordinarily late.
Marchessault went to the dressing room and was examined for a possible concussion, but returned to the game. Gallant said the forward is feeling fine for Game 2.
The Capitals had their own complaint about Vegas forward David Perron, who jumped on the ice after the whistle and made contact with Washington captain Alex Ovechkin during the scuffles immediately after the hit.
Once the emotions died down, both teams realized they’ve got to check their more primal urges if they hope to play a solid game on the NHL’s biggest stage. The atmosphere in Las Vegas for the city’s first Final has been electric, but the Caps weren’t intimidated by the frenzied crowd.
Washington goalie Braden Holtby said the biggest difference about playing in Vegas is “the bass they put in the building. Maybe that’s a little false when ... you’re literally shaking from the bass. That’s the only difference. (Their) fans are loud. Our fans are loud. Tampa’s, Pitt’s, Columbus, all fans are loud.”
The condition of the T-Mobile Arena ice also caused occasional problems for both teams with its inconsistencies and general roughness, but nobody is claiming the first-year NHL building has any unusual problems. The conditions certainly didn’t hurt the offensive players in any meaningful way, given the final score.
“Ice isn’t an excuse, because it’s the same for both teams,” Holtby said. “You just want to figure it out quicker than them, and obviously they’ve had the advantage playing here for a while. Our ice isn’t any different than it is here. It’s just little differences. When it’s that hot out, there’s always one thing that’s not great. We’re just figuring out what you can and can’t do.”