They have been telling us for decades—a necessarily nebulous “they,” but one that includes the NHL itself, needing to sell the present brand of hockey shaped by rule changes and coaching revolutions and swollen goalie gear, and certain fans, trying to convince themselves that we’re watching the peak of the sport—that goals aren’t fun. No one would ever put it like that, precisely, because look how ludicrous it reads. But that’s the basic argument, that the low-scoring modern era is inevitable, and welcome. That tight 2-1 games are more dramatic and a superior sort of hockey. That savvy fans can appreciate a clogged neutral zone. That hockey players are smarter and more athletic than they’ve ever been, and no one really knew what they were doing in the ‘80s. To which I say: Give me the goals!
The Vegas Golden Knights’ 6-4 win over Washington in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final was something we’ve literally never seen before. It was just the third game in NHL playoff history, and the first ever in the finals, to feature four lead changes, as the Knights and the Capitals slugged it out, trading goals until Vegas’s fourth line dominated the third. It was back-and-forth action, requiring in viewers the lateral eye movement of a tennis fan, and it was often sloppy. There were defensive breakdowns, rebounds and screens and deflections galore, and goals, goals, goals. And it was fun.
“Lot of up and down,” Nate Schmidt said. “A lot of times you feel like the game is going in one direction and then they score and we score. A lot of emotion. It was a pretty emotional game for everybody.”
I doubt Game 2 or the rest of the series will be like this. I think there were real nerves on both sides, with just about everyone totally new to the game’s biggest stage, and that showed up in a disjointed, momentum-free game where just about the only thing that carried the day was forechecking and its attendant chaos. “I think next game is going to be different,” Alex Ovechkin said, “and all the nervousness, all the bad things go away from this game.”
“Bad things” only if you’re an interested party, and on the wrong side of the results. If you like being entertained—or, crucially, if you’re a casual or first-time fan tuning in because you’ve heard all about these improbable Golden Knights and wanted to see what the fuss was all about—this was your game.
Notably, despite the scoring explosion, this wasn’t actually that bad a game for the goaltenders. There were too many point-blank shots and too many shooters left open, too much general weirdness; most of the goals were unblockable.
Look at where the even-strength goals came from, via the indispensable Natural Stat Trick:
Give some of that credit to the skaters. You’re not going to see many better passes than T.J. Oshie’s scoop to John Carlson in the second, or, later in the game, Shea Theodore’s cross-ice pass to Tomas Nosek for the eventual winning goal.
This wasn’t exactly Marc Andre-Fleury turning back into a playoff pumpkin (though he did score an own goal) or Braden Holtby rediscovering the form that got him benched to start the postseason, but it wasn’t much fun to be in net. Fleury was grateful for the few breaks he got, showing love to his partner in crime, the iron.
“It was a little too exciting for the goalies,” Fleury said. “It was a little too interesting.”
Interesting right up through the final seconds, when it was a defensive play, of all things, that saved the game for Vegas. Brayden McNabb’s stick check prevented Lars Eller from finishing, and after an empty-netter the other way, that was that.
It’s 11 hours later and I’ve worked up my heart rate just thinking about that game. Goals are good. Hockey is entertainment! The same galaxy-brain take that holds Vegas’s kitschy Medieval Times playoff intros to be uncouth and unfitting of the sport tries to tell you that a game like last night represents a breakdown in play, rather than a wildly compelling spectacle. Do not listen to them! Because it’s the finals, and because Vegas’s and Washington’s unexpected success stories have permeated the wider sports consciousness, there are a lot of non–hockey watchers who watched hockey. Imagine how they feel. Yahoo’s Ryan Lambert gets it:
This is the sport! It’s that thing of “if you ever go to a game, you’ll love it instantly.” Imagine if this was somehow your first hockey game? Good lord! You probably didn’t even have to be there to breathe in that apparently electric Vegas atmosphere to get hooked on hockey after a night like that.
Nothing about these playoffs has made much sense, and it’s been one of the more entertaining postseasons in living memory. Games like last night’s don’t come along very often, and I’m not sure I’d want them to, but god damn if I don’t need a cigarette.