WASHINGTON, D.C. – James Neal hates Mondays.
The Vegas Golden Knights stormed into Washington’s Capital One Arena Monday night playing their best hockey of the Stanley Cup Final, buzzing like their misfit lives depended on it, when Neal — a sniper of elite pedigree — appeared to be the beneficiary of what he called “the perfect play.”
Tomas Tatar zipped the puck to Erik Haula, who quickly found Neal’s tape with a back-door pass. Beyond his crease to challenge the potential Haula shot, Capitals goalie Braden Holtby was toast. Sprawling Matt Niskanen did the splits in attempt to get between Neal’s attempt and a net so open it could’ve sold Slurpees.
But Neal, later saying he saw the chance unfold in slow motion, wisely waited a half second for Niskanen to slide out of the frame and let ’er rip.
“He won’t brag about it, but he has one heck of a strong shot,” Neal’s proud dad, Peter, had boasted just minutes earlier during Hockey Night in Canada’s intro.
Diving back, Holtby was certain the puck went in.
It was the clang of the clock striking midnight and Cinderella scrambling home in a tattered dress, pumpkin shards everywhere. The sound of the Golden Knights’ wonderful season ending, barring a miracle.
When Neal’s sure thing collided with the inside of the far iron, the Knights’ luck flipped.
“On this stage, at that moment, it changes the game,” said Neal, sitting in his stall and his frustration.
“Man, you want those chances. Nine times out of 10, you probably put that in the back of the net. It’s like I had the composure to wait, and then you shoot it, and you’re like ‘Oh,’ and the way it hit the post and still came out? I mean, it’s… I don’t know, it’s tough. It’s not like anyone made a save.
“I had a wide-open net, and then I just hit the post.”
At that juncture the shot attempts were 14-3 Vegas. Then Colin Miller tripped Lars Eller knee-on-knee at centre ice, and T.J. Oshie kicked a rebound to his blade and flipped it by Marc-Andre Fleury on the ensuing power play. The building erupted. (Just a little ’stitous, Oshie had been stocking up on good luck of his own by hopping the Metro to the game because travelling among the rabid Caps fans had paid off in Game 3.)
“When guy miss the empty net or goalie made a great save, it always give you positive emotion,” said Evgeny Kuznetov, who set up Oshie and three more teammates for a four-assist night.
Three more pucks flew past Fleury before Neal did eventually score in the third period. By that point, the game, if not the series, was over.
“I’ve been on the other side of that, and it’s deflating,” empathized Capitals forward Brett Connelly after Washington’s 6-2 win. “They played well early. They came at us, and they’re not gonna stop. That’s the thing.”
Here’s the thing: The Golden Knights dominated possession and high-danger chances (12-5). They out-attempted their hosts 71-41 and lost by as many goals as posts they hit. Four.
“When they get a chance, they’ll check their legs for snakebites,” NBC play-by-play poet Doc Emrick commented from the booth.
Neal had a Vegas equipment manager rub his stick and kiss it twice for good luck, then he went out and committed a slashing penalty 180 feet from his own net on the next shift.
“[The Post] definitely would have changed the outcome of the game and would have given us momentum, but we can’t worry about that,” said Alex Tuch, one of several Knights who believed Game 4 was their best-played of the series.
“Just maybe some puck luck or just not bearing down. It happens. It’s hockey. It’s a game of inches, and sometimes it doesn’t go your way, and it hasn’t so far, but hopefully we’re able to turn that around for Game 5.”
Barry Trotz believes in puck luck; Gerard Gallant does not. Only hard work, and Fleury.
Vegas finished top-10 this season in PDO — hockey’s metric for fortune — but at some point, the board has gone ALL CAPS. If not for bad luck, they would have none.
The fact Nevada’s Clark County prematurely scheduled a parade(!) to celebrate the Knights’ success Tuesday? (Since cancelled.)
Was it Vegas-born Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper wearing a Marchessault sweater to the game?
Or was it Fleury curiously shooting a puck into the Capitals net at the end of Game 4’s warm-up, a hockey taboo?
“I always go out with David Perron [who was a healthy scratch,” Fleury explained. “Normally, it is Perron who throws in the net. I thought of taking his place. I will not take it anymore.”
Fleury entered the championship with godly numbers. A 12-3 record, 1.68 goals-against average and a .947 save percentage. Washington’s wicked power-play and steady stream of engaged stars have proven Flower’s bloom unsustainable.
His save rate through the Final’s four games: .877.
“It’s frustrating and demoralizing,” Fleury said. “We dominated the Capitals for the first 10 minutes. We know we can compete with them. The score of 6-2 is not too representative of the match.
The Golden Knights are down to a chip and a chair.
Nate Schmidt pointed to his chest, his heart.
“Right here,” the hockey player said. “You look down deep and look inside at what you got inside you, and that’s where it comes from. That’s the only place that it can come from. It’s not going to come from anybody else. It’s not going to come from any pressure anywhere else. It’s going to come from inside.”