The Vegas Golden Knights should be an incredible success story by any standard. They have made the third round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs three times in their first four seasons after entering the NHL as an expansion team in 2017-18.
But their standard of success is the Stanley Cup, nothing less, and so there was nothing but disappointment after they were eliminated in a 3-2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Semifinals at Bell Centre in Montreal on Thursday.
“It’s a pretty terrible feeling,” captain Mark Stone said.
The Golden Knights, who lost in the Stanley Cup Final in 2017-18 and the Western Conference Final last season, tied the Colorado Avalanche for the most points in the NHL in the regular season (82), losing the Presidents’ Trophy to them due to the regulation-wins tiebreaker (35-30).
They defeated the Minnesota Wild in seven games in the Stanley Cup First Round and the Avalanche in six games in the second round.
But then they ran into the Canadiens, who smothered them with team defense, stymied them with the goaltending of Carey Price and counterattacked with quick-strike offense.
“I think this is one of the best [teams], if not the best team, I’ve played on,” said defenseman Alec Martinez, who won the Stanley Cup with the Los Angeles Kings in 2012 and 2014. “To come up short is obviously really disappointing.”
The Golden Knights scored 13 goals in the series. Five came from forwards, and two came from their top seven goal-scorers in the regular season. The power play went 0-for-15.
“The onus is on us players,” forward Reilly Smith said. “It just came down to, they did a better job scoring goals than we did in the series.
“The chances were there, but it seemed like every time they got an opportunity or a breakaway, it would end up in the back of the net, and we weren’t able to do the same on our end. There’s no need to point fingers.”
Stone pointed one at himself, however.
“Ultimately, it falls down on myself and the top players on this team,” Stone said. “We had some guys produce night in, night out. But as far as myself and a number of other guys, I mean, I got skunked this series.”
Stone scored 61 points (21 goals, 40 assists) in the regular season, tied for 10th in the NHL in scoring. He had eight points (five goals, three assists) in 13 games in the first two rounds of the playoffs, then no points in six games against the Canadiens.
“That can’t happen,” said Stone, who said he was not playing hurt. “I’m the captain of this team, the leader of this team. I take a lot of responsibility for what just occurred, but if I can, I guess, take anything, I’ll have to see what went wrong over the summer. …
“I’m excited to learn from mistakes and try and build this team to a Stanley Cup winner, not just a contender.”
Told Stone had been critical of himself, coach Peter DeBoer said, “Well, I’m not surprised he’s taking that on himself, but that’s not a load he needs to carry and definitely not alone.”
Smith and Max Pacioretty each had three points (one goal, two assists) in the series. Alex Tuch had two assists, Jonathan Marchessault one. Chandler Stephenson missed three games with an upper-body injury and had one assist in three games.
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury misplayed the puck late in the third period of Game 3, leading to the tying goal with 1:55 to go. Instead of taking the series lead, Vegas went on to lose 3-2 in overtime and fall behind 2-1.
“When you get to this point, the teams that win find another level,” DeBoer said. “They don’t sag. We didn’t find another level, and they did.
“I thought they were opportunistic. They owned the key moments of the series. When they got a chance, they stuck it in the net. When they needed a big save, they got a big save. They won the overtime battle. They won the special teams battle. If you’re losing those areas of the game, you’re putting yourself in a tough spot.”
DeBoer said he felt the Golden Knights made progress this season, but everything is on the table for the future.
“There’s another door we’ve got to find a way to barge through at this time of year,” DeBoer said, “and I think everybody’s got to look in the mirror, obviously coaches included.”
The Golden Knights have come close to the Stanley Cup three times in four seasons. Now they have to find a way to go all the way.
“I think it’s just getting over that hump,” Stone said. “Teams go through this. We’ve got to continue to learn and grow this organization. Four years in, we’ve had success, but going into Year 5, it’s again, it’s the expectation is to win the Stanley Cup.”