WASHINGTON — Coming from a city where hot and cold streaks can spell fortune or disaster, the Vegas Golden Knights learned a hard lesson in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final — sometimes hockey isn’t fair.
The Knights played their best period of the title series Monday, but hit two posts, missed the net on another great chance, and found themselves trailing the Washington Capitals 3-0 after the first.
By the time the final buzzer sounded, they had chimed pucks off the iron four times in all, finishing with 71 shots directed towards goal compared to the home side’s 41.
The Knights lost 6-2.
Vegas, the surprising expansion franchise that has wowed the hockey world with its speed, tenacity and togetherness, now sits in a 3-1 hole in the best-of-seven title series and faces elimination at home in Thursday’s Game 5.
The Knights played well this season and in these playoffs, but their luck might be running out.
“It was a great stride forward for our team,” said Vegas head coach Gerard Gallant, trying to stay positive. ”We played pretty hard.”
And yet, like a frustrated gambler, they had nothing to show for it.
Erik Haula unluckily had a pass in front strike his skate and hit the post after just 67 seconds, Reilly Smith hit the side of the net with another grade-A opportunity, and James Neal somehow fired across the face of an open goal with Capitals netminder Braden Holtby at his mercy on a power play.
“You score, and then you get momentum,” Neal lamented. ”It changes where you’re going.”
But Washington instead survived that push and would go onto score three times in the final 10 minutes of the opening period to effectively put the game out of reach.
“We had a good start, you know? Put some pressure, hit some posts,” Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. ”They came back. They got some quick goals.”
Fleury wasn’t at fault on any of them — that blame can be squarely put on the Knights’ defensive zone coverage — but the fact remains he had a .947 save percentage through the first three rounds of the playoffs for the 109-point Pacific Division champions.
Through four games of the final, that number sits at .845, but it mostly reflects the loose play in front of him rather than a drop in form.
“Not where we want to be, that’s for sure,” Fleury said of the 3-1 deficit. ”But we have a good bunch of guys with a lot of character in the room. Nobody’s quitting.”
While not at its best, Vegas has certainly had opportunities to rewrite the script, most notably when Holtby robbed Alex Tuch late in Game 2 on a miraculous stick save to seal a Washington victory that evened the series.
“We’ve been in this position before,” Knights forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare said. ”People don’t believe we can do stuff that we’ve done. We’re just going to go back home and work hard. We worked really hard that game and I think we created enough bounces.
“We didn’t put them in.”
While ecstatic with the victory that inched them ever closer to their first Stanley Cup, the Capitals were also realistic about a first period that could have played out much differently.
“We know they’re going to keep pushing forward,” Holtby said. ”We want to do everything in our power so we don’t need breaks to win.”
The Knights, meanwhile, will have to do something only one other team — 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs — have done in the Cup final: win three straight after falling behind 3-1.
“We’ve been good at regrouping,” Neal said. ”We have to play the same way and then bear down when we have those chances. Posts, just a piece of them … we generated the offence we wanted, we generated the chances.
“Go home, win one game, and the pressure is on them.”
The Knights put the pressure on the Capitals early in Game 4 and probably deserved a better fate.
The problem is, sometimes hockey isn’t fair.
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press