The Vegas Golden Knights have, like most teams in most sports, played to two possible outcomes all year and all playoffs and in each game of these Stanley Cup finals. But never in their single season of existence has a possible outcome carried such significant consequences. Never has their back been all but glued against the wall. Never has a loss threatened to end their magical run, stuffed with impossibility at every turn, with a loud and echoing thud.
But that is what will happen if the Golden Knights lose to the Washington Capitals in Game 5 in Las Vegas on Thursday. A Capitals win would clinch the first title in franchise history. It would also reel the Golden Knights back to reality after a team built by an expansion draft charged through the NHL for the last eight months.
The Golden Knights know this, and they spoke about the skyrocketing stakes in hushed voices late Monday night, after the Capitals bullied them in a 6-2 win at Capital One Arena. Golden Knights Coach Gerard Gallant, who does not believe in “puck luck,” knows this as well, but he thinks a 3-1 series deficit has shifted the burden of expectations off his team and onto its opponent.
“I think we’ve got to come out and start the way we started last night. We’ve got to be ready to play,” Gallant said on a call with reporters Tuesday. “We’re going to play in our building. The pressure’s off us. We’re going to work hard and have some fun. We’ll see what happens.”
Gallant and his team are drawing hope from the first five minutes of a game that ended in a four-goal defeat. The Golden Knights were humming at the start of Monday’s Game 4, tossing pucks into the zone, racing to reclaim them and peppering Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby with a storm of scoring chances. The Vegas offense had scored just three total goals across Games 2 and 3, both losses, and the start seemed to foreshadow a breakthrough.
But that never came. James Neal shot toward a wide-open net on a power play and hit the post, the Golden Knights fumbled away the rest of the five-on-four advantage, and the Capitals scored three times before the first-period horn sounded. That left the Golden Knights on the brink of defeat and wondering when a bounce or two would go their way. It is believed that luck is created, not given, in hockey, but the ice has tilted in the Capitals’ favor in a few critical moments of this series.
Holtby’s acrobatic save on Alex Tuch in the waning moments of Game 2 — already coined The Save by Capitals fans — is one of those instances. Neal’s point-blank miss in Game 4, surrounded by two other Golden Knights shots that hit posts, provided further evidence of their misfortune. There is no promise that will change, so Gallant is instead leaning on his team’s ability to play loose and carefree.
The only thing they have to lose, after all, is the Stanley Cup.
“I mean, let’s face it. We started the season, and there was no expectation for our hockey club,” Gallant said Tuesday. “Did the expectations change going into the playoffs? Sure they did, because we had a great regular season and won the Pacific Division. Again, it was about coming to play and enjoying our time and working hard and giving ourselves a chance to win.”
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