There was no push, no wait-a-minute moments, no barrage of goals to leave the Washington Capitals wondering how a freight train fit inside Capital One Arena then zoomed down the center of their home ice.
Instead, the Vegas Golden Knights did what they have rarely done in their inaugural season: They wilted. They spent 60 minutes trying to find themselves and, when the goals and shots and mistakes added up, they were left with a 3-1 loss to the Capitals on Saturday night. This is the first time the Golden Knights have lost back-to-back games in the playoffs. Now they trail in a series for just the second time this postseason, 2-1 heading into Game 4 on Monday, and need to find the speed and space and scoring spurts that helped them sprint through the regular season and NHL Western Conference, largely untouched.
“We can live with the loss if we’re just not getting the bounces,” Golden Knights forward Ryan Reaves said. “But I think the way we played isn’t good enough for this time of year.”
The Golden Knights, however cliché, did not think they played “their game” in the first two contests of the series. That was mostly due to poor puck management, as they finished with nine giveaways in Game 1 and 12 in Game 2.
This kept the Golden Knights from executing two of their defining traits — getting all five players in the offensive zone, and limiting opponents’ odd-man rushes — and it showed as they gave up four goals in a Game 1 win before dropping Game 2.
“I feel like this year we haven’t been a team that gave up a lot of odd-man rushes, and we haven’t been a team that gives up a lot of turnovers, either,” center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare said ahead of Game 3. “And the two first games we gave more than we probably gave for the whole playoffs. As soon as the turnover numbers go down, then you are going to see our game.”
There were no glimpses of it Saturday, as the Golden Knights ambled through a sloppy, scoreless first period and were twice bailed out by goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
But Fleury could only do so much at the start of the second, as the Capitals peppered him with a five-shot sequence that ended with Alex Ovechkin punching in the game’s first goal. About 11 minutes later, after the Golden Knights fumbled away two point-blank chances, the Capitals doubled their lead when Evgeny Kuznetsov finished a clean look on another odd-man rush.
Fleury whipped his head around to watch it go in, then slumped down, knocking his knees against the ice as the Capitals celebrated along the boards behind him. Three of his teammates, searching for answers they couldn’t find, shook their heads as they drifted about the ice. The Golden Knights notched only 13 shots on net through two periods. The Capitals, meanwhile, used the second period to score two series-shifting goals.
“We got to get in front of the net, get that rebound or whatever it is,” Golden Knights center Cody Eakin said of how their flat offense. “We’re going to have to change sides, get it up to the point, um … there’s a lot of things we can do better.”
There was a small breakthrough at the start of the third, as Capitals goalie Braden Holtby botched a clear and Tomas Nosek tapped it in. But that was it for the Golden Knights. Washington’s Devante Smith-Pelly scored 10 minutes later to stretch the deficit back to two, and the Golden Knights generated small bursts of pressure that subsided as soon as they came.
In the final seconds, with Fleury on the bench and an extra skater on the ice, the Golden Knights couldn’t keep an errant pass in the zone. That left forward William Karlsson skating slowly toward the Golden Knights’ bench, in the wrong direction, farther and farther away from the goal.
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