It looked and felt like the Vegas Golden Knights had recaptured the magic that had carried them to the Stanley Cup Final but vanished while they lost the previous two games.
They were buzzing, carrying the play against the Washington Capitals on Monday, creating scoring chances. Winger James Neal nearly cashed one in during a man advantage but was thwarted by the goalpost.
“It could have been a different hockey game if they scored on their power play,” Washington center Nicklas Backstrom said, “so we got a little lucky there.”
Maybe. But the Capitals also were very good. And five minutes later, during a power play of their own, they began a scoring spree that fueled a 6-2 victory and gave them a series lead of three games to one. They’re one win away from the first Stanley Cup championship in franchise history. The Golden Knights are wondering if the hockey gods have cruelly abandoned them.
“I would say this was the best game that we played,” said Vegas forward Tomas Tatar, who was inserted into the lineup in place of David Perron to stir the team’s slumbering offense. “The two we lose before, we were kind of mad at ourselves at how the outcome looked. Today, I know the score looks awful, but we did good. We battled. We just didn’t score.
“I know hockey’s played that you have to score goals to win a game.”
Yup, it still works that way, and after putting six goals past Braden Holtby to win Game 1, the Golden Knights have been outscored 12-5. They pushed back in the third period Monday and closed within 4-2 with 7:34 left on goals by Neal and Reilly Smith, but Michal Kempny and Brett Connolly — the latter on Washington’s third power-play goal in five opportunities — put the game beyond Vegas’ reach.
The Cup will be in the house at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Thursday, when the Capitals can end more than four decades of angst and anguish. Previous versions of the Capitals were more talented than this group but never achieved this balance of staunch defense and explosive scoring and never enjoyed this mix of tenacity and hunger. “You can see all four lines playing their good hockey,” said center Evgeny Kuznetsov, whose four assists plumped his playoff-leading point total to 31 and made him the front runner for the Conn Smythe trophy as the most valuable player in postseason play. “We play very good hockey right now, but we have to have short memory and stay focused.”
A victory by Vegas would send the series back to Washington for Game 6 on Sunday. Golden Knights center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare expects to make the trip back East. “You can’t win three games in one, right? I don’t see anything else other than the game at home right now,” he said. “It’s one game. We’ve won one game this season so we can win another one.”
But they haven’t been in this position in their short existence. They swept the Kings, took out San Jose in six games and eliminated Winnipeg in five games before running into the Capitals, who have turned a supposed rebuilding season into their best performance since they joined the NHL as an especially bad expansion team for the 1974-75 season.
Vegas coach Gerard Gallant noted the Capitals’ good fortune on Monday, particularly on the carom that set up T.J. Oshie for Washington’s first goal, at 9:54 of the first period, but added, “They got the breaks because they’re working hard.” Gallant had no quarrel with his team’s effort, just with the outcome. “Obviously we have no more room for error so we gotta get ready for the next game,” he said.
After the goal by Oshie — who took the Metro train to the arena and had to borrow 35 cents to exit the train station — Tom Wilson increased the lead to 2-0 at 16:26. Kuznetsov began the play by winning a faceoff in Vegas’ defensive zone and made a fine pass to Wilson in the slot. Vegas urgently needed to get out of the period without more damage but couldn’t do it. With 20.5 seconds left before the intermission, former Duck Devante Smith-Pelly scored from close range, triggering huge roars with his sixth playoff goal. He scored seven in 75 regular-season games.
“When you’re down 3-0 it’s hard,” Tatar said. “Every single time when they scored we had a big chance, too, but just couldn’t put it in.”
John Carlson made it 4-0 before Neal and Smith chimed in, but Kempny’s one-timer and Connolly’s five-on-three goal sealed it. “We’ll see what happens but this is a lot fun,” Connolly said. “We’re a confident group. We’ve just got to keep working, right to the end.”
Their happy ending could occur on Thursday, unless the Golden Knights rediscover their magic and their game, not necessarily in that order.
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen