Game 1 of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final between the Vegas Golden Knights and Washington Capitals should be placed inside a time capsule and launched into deep space. This way, when advanced civilizations from distant galaxies colonize Earth, they will do so understanding all the best and worst traits of the National Hockey League before purchasing season tickets in Quebec.
In what was arguably the single best game of the season, the Golden Knights—have you heard that they are a first-year expansion team?—vanquished the Capitals 6-4 to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. There were breathtaking goals, four lead changes, shots ringing off iron, a puck swept off the goal line, and heart-stopping close calls in the final minutes encased inside a breakneck pace rarely seen at the highest level of hockey.
It was the perfect advertisement for the NHL and it all occurred in front of a nationally televised audience that likely contained new eyeballs thanks to the presence of the Golden Knights.
Well, it was almost perfect.
It wouldn’t be your consummate NHL game worth sending into the universe without two of its hallmarks: referees blowing an easy call on an egregious penalty that instantly led to a game-tying goal early in the third period, and a predatory hit. Maybe it’s going too far to say these incidents marred the game—people have grown understandably numb to inept NHL officiating and the league going easy on dirty hits—but they served to overshadow an otherwise sublime game that displayed everything the NHL could be if it tried.
Because nothing makes sense anymore, serial cheap shot artist Tom Wilson (we'll get to that in a second) gave the Capitals a 4-3 lead 1:10 into the third period when Conn Smythe favorite Marc-Andre Fleury kicked a loose puck into his own net, conjuring memories of Fleury’s playoff implosions with the Penguins. Even if the Golden Knights hadn’t come back to win, there were enough intriguing talking points to fill the hours until Game 2.
Then it all went away.
Ryan Reaves—seriously, nothing makes sense anymore—tied the game less than two minutes later by snapping a shot from just outside the crease off the far post and past Braden Holtby, a goal that was made possible only because Reaves cross checked Capitals defenseman John Carlson to the ice to create the space for his shot. It was the sort of textbook penalty they show aspiring NHL referees at officials’ school (assuming the NHL actually has one because based on all the evidence that school has never existed).
A few minutes later, Wilson attempted to injure (you can’t interpret it any other way) Marchessault with a blindside hit that was so late it could have been a New York subway train. Marchessault was taken to the locker room and went through the concussion protocol with trainers before returning later in the period, and Wilson went to the penalty box for two minutes instead of receiving the five-minute major and game misconduct he deserved.
"I saw the hit. I remember everything,"Marchessault said. "It was a late hit. I don't really need to talk more about it. I think the league will take care of it. We know what type of player he is out there. You gotta keep your head up and try to make the play.”
Wilson offered a defense worthy of Lionel Hutz:
"He'd probably say he shouldn't admire his pass. I'm just finishing my check. I haven't slowed it down. I've been told that we're talking tenths [of a second] here. I think it's game speed, and I delivered it in good time. I think he let up a little bit because he wasn't aware I was there. I finished him through his body. He might have been a little bit surprised by it, but it wasn't an aggressive hit. He looked fine at the end when he was yelling at me from the bench."
“Your honor? Can my client really be guilty of a crime if the so-called ‘victim’ was yelling about it afterward? No further questions! Move to dismiss!”
After all this nonsense, Tomas Nosek put the Golden Knights ahead for good with a beautiful goal off a pass by Shea Theodore at 9:44, then sealed the win with an empty-net goal in the final seconds. A team that did not have a roster this time a year ago moved three wins from a Stanley Cup. It’s a story with a chance to elevate the league to new heights.
Yet all anyone could talk about afterward was Wilson’s attempt to end Marchessault’s season that will surely go unpunished by the NHL’s Player “Safety” Department and the taint on the victory caused by the manner in which Reaves scored the tying goal. These aren’t accidental blemishes on a spotless record for the NHL—this is standard operating procedure for a league with no interest in having officials do their jobs.
If the NHL has any concerns about legalized sports gambling in the United States and maintaining integrity in its games, its primary concern should be ordering its referees to call penalties no matter the time and score, and scuttling the “let the players decide the game” nonsense that has infected officiating for decades because missed/ignored calls like the ones in Game 1 make it really easy to question that integrity.
This is how you wind up with a waterfall of quotes from Marchessault, Wilson, and others about an unconscionable hit or Capitals coach Barry Trotz wondering how in the world Reaves wasn’t sent to the penalty box for a cross check on Carlson instead of quotes about the atmosphere in the building or any of the other selling points about this sport. Bad officiating is again dominating the conversation about a game that was on its way to the Smithsonian with less than a period remaining.
The NHL is fractured foundationally and those cracks tend to show themselves at the worst possible times, and they did so again Monday night in Las Vegas.