By Jesse Dougherty,
At first it looked like Braden Holtby did it again, another miraculous save, another gut punch to the Vegas Golden Knights when they were so close to cracking through. Fans clutched their heads and looked at one another in disbelief. Holtby pushed himself up, unwinding like a Slinky, and ice shavings fell off his jersey as the Capital One Arena crowd chanted his two-syllable last name.
It was The Save: Part Two — until replay revealed that it wasn’t a save at all.
The Golden Knights were on a power play at the start of the first period. James Neal collected a pass and had the entire net to shoot into, aside from two slivers covered by sticks belonging to Holtby and defenseman Matt Niskanen. An offensive slump rested in Neal’s hands and all he had to do was flick the puck a few feet and give his team a much-needed advantage and . . .
“I hit the post,” Neal said, his lip bloodied, his laugh laced with frustration, his locker surrounded by reporters for the wrong reason. “It probably changes the game. It’s probably a different game after that. You know we get the first one. . . . It’s tough.”
A 60-minute game cannot be decided by a split second with just 4:31 off the clock in the first period. But it can be altered by an inch at any moment, and the Golden Knights were on the wrong end of that fact in a 6-2 loss to the Washington Capitals in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals Monday night.
[It’s all happening. The Capitals are one win away from the Stanley Cup.]
They never recovered from Neal’s point-blank miss. It was followed by three first-period goals for the Capitals, each more foreboding than the one before it, and the Golden Knights now face a 3-1 deficit as the series swings back to their home ice.
“Just maybe some puck luck or just not bearing down. It happens. It’s hockey,” Golden Knights forward Alex Tuch said of his team’s inability to convert early chances Monday night. “It’s a game of inches and sometimes it doesn’t go your way. It hasn’t’ so far but hopefully we’re able to turn that around for Game 5.”
In the 4 minutes 30 seconds leading into Neal hitting the post, the Golden Knights held every ounce of momentum. They challenged the Capitals to a string of foot races, dumping the puck into the zone before chasing after it, and got comfortable on the attack. Erik Haula hit the post with a wrist shot. Reilly Smith had a solid chance in front. Holtby’s head whipped side to side, as if he we were watching a Ping-Pong match in front of his crease.
Then Capitals defenseman John Carlson went to the penalty box for tripping. Then the Golden Knights had two minutes of a five-on-four advantage to turn their early energy into an early lead. Then Neal was wide open in the left slot with a wide-open net in front of him and his shot went, well, just a bit wide.
[Svrluga: This Capitals team is different. It is methodical, calm and ruthless.]
“It was a great play, [Tomas Tatar] passes over to [Erik Haula] and he finds me back door and I had a wide open net, and I hit the post,” Neal said, as if he couldn’t mutter those last four words enough. “I definitely want to have it back.”
Neal cannot control the context surrounding his error, but the context made it even worse. The Golden Knights offense has been reeling since the team’s 6-4 win in Game 1 of this series. They netted three total goals in Games 2 and 3, and their only score of Game 3 was gift-wrapped by a Holtby turnover. This is all after scoring 3.27 goals per game during the regular season, good for fifth best in the NHL, and ripping through the Western Conference playoffs with five games with four or more goals.
Their first-period power play, and particularly Neal’s look in front, was a chance to check off two important tasks with one shot: jump ahead in a pivotal game and ignite a slumbering offense. Instead the Golden Knights flatlined.
They were buried by three first-period goals. Golden Knights defenseman Brayden McNabb rung the post with a slap shot at the start of the second, and Capitals defenseman John Carlson scored soon after to stretch the deficit to four. The Golden Knights’ third-period push came all too late and was stomped on, for good, by a Michal Kempny one-timer with six minutes left.
By the time Neal snapped Holtby’s shutout, with 14:17 left in the third, an inch had influenced the game long before. And if an inch can influence one game it could very well influence a series, a series slipping away from Golden Knights with each passing minute, and each opportunity missed.
“At the end of the day you got to bury them,” Neal said. “So no feeling sorry for ourselves. We got to regroup.”
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