LAS VEGAS — On the day before the biggest game of the Vegas Golden Knights’ season — and, therefore, the most important moment in the franchise’s history — William Karlsson was not on the ice.
Karlsson chose to take Wednesday off as the rest of his teammates practiced, according to Golden Knights Coach Gerard Gallant, which comes after a three-game slump for the center and his first-line wingers. Karlsson led the Golden Knights with 78 points in the regular season, including a team-high 43 goals, but has not provided an offensive spark since his first-period goal in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals.
“He took a day off,” Gallant said of Karlsson’s status heading into Game 5 at T-Mobile Arena on Thursday. “It was an optional practice. As you could see everybody was out there, but he just thought the best thing for him [Thursday] night was to take [Wednesday] off. He’ll be fine for [Thursday], if that’s what you’re asking.”
Gallant tweaked his lineup for Game 4, inserting Tomas Tatar for David Perron and sliding rookie Alex Tuch next to Erik Haula and James Neal on the second line. Perron has yet to find the net in the playoffs. Tatar, acquired from the Detroit Red Wings in February, has a knack for scoring and the speed to counter the Capitals’ bruising play in the neutral zone.
But the offensive slide starts with the Golden Knights’ top line of Jonathan Marchessault, Karlsson and Reilly Smith. Smith scored late in Game 4, with the Golden Knights trailing by three goals, and that could help kick-start what has been the catalyst of a quick-strike offense.
“I think you have to give credit to them. I think they’re doing a good job of shutting us down,” Marchessault said. “But, I mean, that’s adversity that we faced all year, I think, as a team and as a line. And I think in this situation, your best players have to be your best players, and we’re going to bring our A game.”
And it looks as though Karlsson will be a part of that effort, even if Wednesday’s absence raised questions about his status heading into a do-or-die game.
“Oh, no, he’s good,” Marchessault said. “I don’t worry about him. He’s a tough Swede.”
It is rare that three straight losses provide a blueprint for success, but the Golden Knights may have that heading into Game 5.
Their first five minutes of Game 4 was some of their best hockey of the series, even if they ended the stretch without a goal. The Golden Knights established a preferable fast pace, dumped pucks behind the Capitals’ net and gave themselves high odds at two wanted outcomes: They either beat the Capitals to the puck and created scoring chances or set up their five-man forecheck to get a foothold in the offensive zone.
The downside of the start was that a few prime scoring opportunities were wasted, primarily Neal’s point-blank shot on a power play that hit the post instead of a wide-open net. But it still stood out as a bright spot of an otherwise dispiriting defeat.
“That’s the way we have to play in order to give ourselves a chance,” Golden Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “They capitalized on their opportunities, and you go back and look at the chances and think that you’re right there. But, again, they made some plays. If we have an opportunity to play that way again I would take it.”