WASHINGTON — Vegas Golden Knights’ forward James Neal, whose bottom lip was swollen and leaking blood, was sitting in his locker still wondering how in the world he didn’t score.
In the first five minutes of the game, he had the puck on his stick and was staring at an empty net. It should have been a goal. Ninety-nine times out of a 100, it would have been. But this time he hit the post.
It was deflating. It was game-changing — if not series-changing.
“That changes the game,” said Neal, shaking his head and smiling at his misfortune. “It’s probably a different game after that. We get the first one and — oh, it’s tough. A great play by (Erik Haula). He finds me backdoor and I have an empty net. I just hit the post.
“At the end of the day, you’ve got to bury them.”
In the end, the missed chances were too much as the Washington Capitals defeated the Golden Knights 6-2 in a pivotal Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final. With a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, Washington now has a chance to win a first-ever championship on Thursday.
More and more, that is looking like a strong possibility.
From here, it looks like the Golden Knights are finally folding. Or they’ve stumbled upon a cooler and are about to go bust.
Whatever you want to call it, this does not look like the same team that went on a miracle run as a first-year expansion team. Now, this looks like a team that is quickly running out of luck and chips.
“Not where we want to be, for sure,” said goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. “We have a good bunch of character guys in this room. Nobody’s quitting.”
Part of that is because of the Capitals, who after losing in Game 1 have emerged as the better team in almost every category. They are blocking more shots, getting more timely saves, and — most importantly — converting on more scoring opportunities.
T.J. Oshie had a goal and two assists, Evgeny Kuznetsov had four helpers to push his point total to 31 for the playoffs, and Braden Holtby stopped 28 of 30 shots. But this win belonged to the hockey gods as much as it did with any of Washington’s star players.
“It could have been a different hockey game,” said Kuznetsov. “So we got a little lucky there and yeah I don’t know maybe it shouldn’t have been a 3-0 lead after the first, but you know we will take it. We are not going to feel sorry for them.”
If luck has escaped the Golden Knights, the opposite has happened to the Capitals. They can’t do wrong. And when they do, the posts seem to bail them out again and again. Just ask Neal, who will probably be haunted by the sound of the puck clanging off iron for the next two days — and possibly the rest of the summer unless things start to turn around.
Trailing in the series, the Golden Knights came out firing the puck from all areas and angles on the ice. It didn’t matter. Every shot Vegas took was the equivalent of rolling snake eyes.
An Erik Haul deflection in the opening minutes hit post. An open look from Reilly Smith sailed wide. And then, on a play that encapsulated just how snake-bitten they were, Neal stared down an empty net and hit nothing but iron. It could have been 3-0 for Vegas.
Instead, Washington survived the early onslaught and took a 3-0 lead on goals from T.J. Oshie, Tom Wilson and Devante Smith-Pelly.
When asked if the missed early chances affected the outcome of the game, Vegas defenceman Pierre-Edouard Bellemare responded: “What do you think? If they’re in, exactly. I feel like we created enough bounces to have six.”
Oshie, who had once again travelled by subway with Matt Niskanen to the game, scored the power play when he followed up on a shot from Kuznetsov for his eighth goal of the playoffs.
Washington’s Tom Wilson then converted a give-and-go pass from Kuznetsov to make it 2-0. And with 20.5 seconds remaining in the period, Smith-Pelly put the game out of reach.
That was all they needed.
The Golden Knights held a 50-to-25 advantage in shot attempts after two periods. But they didn’t have anything to show for it, going 0-for-5 on the power play. With or without the help of the posts, Holtby was as locked as he’s been in these playoffs.
Eventually, frustration started to set it, with Vegas taking a string of penalties to end the game.
By then, the game was all but over.
If this continues, so too are Vegas’ chances of winning a Cup.
“It’s do-or-die for us,” said Neal. “We have to put the puck in the net and work for our bounces. Hopefully, they go our way.”