How James Neal’s miss swung Game 4

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WASHINGTON — Maybe the Vegas Golden Knights would have still lost.

Maybe it would have still been a blowout.

Maybe they will still shock the world — again! — and run off three consecutive wins and make everybody forget about their 6-2 loss in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final.

But when James Neal had the puck on his stick early in the first period, staring at a wide open net, and then proceeded to fire it off the inside of the far post it felt like one of those moments that would be a turning point in the game, in the series, and ultimately, in their season.

At that point Vegas was in complete control of the early stages. They were dictating the pace. They finally looked like the team that had started fast in just about every game this postseason. They were finally, after three games of spotty, inconsistent, and sloppy play in the Stanley Cup Final, giving the Capitals their absolute best shot.

Then everything unraveled for them.

[Related: James Neal’s miss leads to Capitals’ offensive eruption]

Five minutes after Neal’s miss defenseman Colin Miller was sent off for tripping Lars Eller in the neutral zone.

Just 30 seconds after that play T.J. Oshie cashed in on his look at an empty net and from there the first period Capitals blitz was on, giving Vegas what would prove to be an insurmountable three-goal deficit.

The entire sequence was just another reminder as to just how fine of a line there is between winning and losing in the NHL and what a significant factor luck plays in all of this.

Heading into Game 5 in Vegas on Thursday (8 p.m. ET, NBC) the Golden Knights find themselves facing elimination for the first time this postseason with their entire season and Stanley Cup dreams on the line. It is incredible to look at how they got here.

After taking Game 1 of the series they were a miracle Braden Holtby save away from sending Game 2 to overtime where anything could have happened.

Then in Game 4, they hit two posts in the first five minutes including Neal’s wide open miss before everything started to go wrong.

“It was a perfect play,” said Neal after the game. “At the start I thought he was going to shoot it, then he held on to it and it was great. Holtby was kind of over there, he gave it to me, Niskanen laid down for a second so I wanted to wait a half a second and just shot it off the post.”

“It changes the game for sure if I score there,” Neal added. “But now we have to win a game at home that is what we will focus on. I like the way we played, you take the positives from tonight because there were a lot of parts of our game that we liked tonight.”

The latter part is what has to be a cruel twist for the Golden Knights as they finally seemed to be getting back to playing their brand of hockey, and then for the first time this postseason seemed to not have everything go their way.

“It was frustrating because of the score,” said Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant when asked how he felt after the first period. “I thought we played our best period of the Final so far. We hit two posts, we had some good chances, and we got nothing out of it. After the first period we came in here and said let’s keep going, let’s keep working hard, let’s keep playing well because things can change in a hurry so we wanted to keep going. Thought we played a pretty good game for the most part.”

“There was a lot of moments it was our game for sure. We played a lot of the game the way we wanted to play it.”

Here is where that becomes a concern for Vegas: After splitting the first two games of the series on home ice they came into Washington for Game 3 and got what was probably Marc-Andre Fleury‘s best game of the series (and he was pretty great for most that game).

It still was not enough to win.

In Game 4 they had their best start of the series, played what was perhaps their best game of the series, and still ended up getting blown out on the scoreboard and dropped their third game in a row.

It has to be crushing to give a team your best shot and still end up having that sort of a result on the scoreboard.

This all feels very similar to the way the Capitals’ second round series went against the Pittsburgh Penguins. In Game 5 of that series the Penguins played what they thought was their best game of the series. It still resulted in a loss. When both teams came out for Game 6 two nights later they both played like they knew it as the Penguins were suddenly the team that looked tight and the Capitals finally looked like they had the weight of the world lifted off of their shoulders. That seems to be where everything changed for this Capitals team. Every step of the way after that has looked the same as they finally seem to be exorcising all of the postseason demons that have haunted them for years.

In postseasons past Alex Tuch‘s shot late in Game 2 gets roofed under the crossbar and the game goes to overtime where they probably lose on some stupid play. Marc-Andre Fleury probably steals Game 3. James Neal probably buries his wide open look in the center of the net and Vegas is the team that goes on a roll to start Game 4.

Not this year. Because this year the breaks are finally going their way.

The common theme after Game 4 was that teams make their own breaks and create their own luck. Maybe to a point that is true, and it is not meant to discredit what the Capitals have done to this point to say they are finally getting a little puck luck.

No team has ever won the Stanley Cup — or any other championship — without a lot of luck going their way. It is an essential ingredient in winning, almost as much as talent, coaching, health, or whatever other factor you want to talk about.

For the previous 42 years it almost always seemed to work against the Capitals.

In year 43 it finally is not.

There was perhaps no better example of it than James Neal, with the first strike of a pivotal Game in the Stanley Cup Final sitting on his stick, firing it off the post for no reason at all.

Stanley Cup Final schedule
Game 1 Monday, May 28 – Golden Knights 6, Capitals 4
Game 2 Wednesday, May 30 – Capitals 3, Golden Knights 2
Game 3 Saturday, June 2 – Capitals 3, Golden Knights 1 (Capitals leads series 2-1)
Game 4 Monday, June 4 – Capitals 6, Golden Knights 2 (Capitals lead series 3-1)
Game 5 Thursday, June 7 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 6* Sunday, June 10 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 7* Wednesday, June 13 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
* = If necessary

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Guide

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Buzzer: Hart wins in debut, Bishop leaves, returns in shutout

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Three stars

1. Ben Bishop (and Anton Khudobin), Dallas Stars

Bishop and his backup edge Hart here due to the fact that Bishop got run over by Calgary Flames forward Garnet Hathaway, forcing him to leave the game in the second period with the Stars up 1-0.

Khudobin held down the fort while Bishop was getting checked out to close out the second period.

Bishop would only miss about six-and-a-half minutes as he led Dallas back onto the ice in the third and resumed where he left off. The duo combined for 24 saves for the shutout as Dallas won 2-0, making some history in the process.

2. Carter Hart, Philadelphia Flyers

Hart made history as he stepped onto the ice in his NHL debut, becoming the Flyers’ sixth goalie to appear in their first 35 games. That’s not a great record to hold, but he’ll be in the annals of hockey history for a while, I’d imagine.

History or not, Hart was solid in his inauguration. He turned aside 20 saves as he and newly-minted head coach Scott Gordon picked up their first wins at their respective positions.

Hart is facing a lot of pressure here. He’s dubbed as the future in Philly and for good reason. Some call the City of Brotherly Love a graveyard for goaltenders. Perhaps Hart can buck the trend. Who knows.

For now, he’s certainly earned another start.

3. Martin Jones, San Jose Sharks

An all-goalie lockout in the three stars tonight finishes with Jones.

The Sharks netminders earned his first shutout of the season, making 26 saves for career goose egg No. 20. Jones’ save percentage this season has left a bit more to be desired, so Tuesday’s effort was a good refresher for fans on what he’s capable of.

San Jose has now won five in a row as they continue their ascent to the top of the Pacific Division.

Other notable performances: 

Highlights of the night

As advertised, this is a nice goal:

Luuuuu:

Given how the Flyers crease situation has played out this season, Gritty may want to keep these goalies healthy:

Factoid

Scores

Panthers 5, Sabres 2

Maple Leafs 7, Devils 2

Rangers 3, Ducks 1

Flyers 3, Red Wings 2

Sharks 4, Wild 0

Blackhawks 2, Predators 1

Stars 2, Flames 0

Blues 4, Oilers 1

Islanders 3, Coyotes 1

Lightning 5, Canucks 2

Kings 4, Jets 1


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Tempers flare, penalty parade ensues between Lightning, Canucks

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Who knew the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Vancouver Canucks harbored so much hate for one another?

Wherever it came from, the apparent bad blood between the two teams was certainly flowing at a steady pace on Tuesday night in Vancouver.

Things were going well until around the 12-minute mark of the second period. It was then that Antoine Roussel landed a big hit on Lightning star Yanni Gourde.

Gourde, not impressed with being turnbuckled, took exception and the two squared off. He got five for fighting and a 10-minute misconduct. Roussel was assessed two for roughing and five for fighting.

From there, Canucks defenseman was forced out of the game after an apparent head shot from Lightning forward Danick Martel.

Martel was skating back through the neutral zone when he saw that Stecher had the puck near the boards. The hit looked innocuous at first, but replays showed that Martel seemed to extend his shoulder into Stecher’s head.

Stecher left the game and the Canucks said he wouldn’t return.

With tempers already boiling, things got completely out of hand with under a minute left in the period.

Lightning forward Cedric Paquette took a run at Canucks forward Elias Pettersson, a no-no, and all hell broke loose as the two lines on the ice brawled.

Paquette received two for roughing and five for fighting. Canucks d-man Ben Hutton, who can be seen below throwing bombs, also got a fighting major.

In total, 14 penalties were doled out, with those adding up to 48 minutes in the second period alone.

Quite the game, one that Tampa won 5-2 in the end.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Blackhawks put in complete performance in 2-1 win against Predators

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Nothing has really gone right for the Chicago Blackhawks as of late.

The firing of Joel Quenneville and hiring of Jeremy Colliton hasn’t done much to rekindle the club’s glory days.

They had actually won more games (six) under Quenneville than they have under the new guy (four) coming into Tuesday’s game.

Corey Crawford, perhaps their ray of hope if he could get it together between the pipes, suffered another concussion this week and is out indefinitely.

Even their mascot, Tommy Hawk, hasn’t been immune to the frustrations in the Windy City.

So Tuesday’s 2-1 win at home at United Center against the mighty Nashville Predators on NBCSN, however insignificant it ends up being at the end of the season, was a welcomed change.

If recent history is to be believed, the Blackhawks might have even been slight favorites heading into the game.

Nashville began the season a perfect 8-0-0 outside of Tennessee, but have now lost eight in a row (0-6-2) since. They’re also pretty banged up, so that helped, too.

Despite Nashville’s shortcomings on the road this as of late, it shouldn’t take away from Chicago’s performance.

They played a tight, offensive-minded game, outshooting the Predators 36-31, including 16-7 in the second period as they erased Nashville’s 1-0 lead and replaced it with a 2-1 advantage of their own.

Any hope of the Blackhawks not falling further from grace rests in the hands of Cam Ward at this point.

With Crawford out, Ward will be leaned on to provide the best netminding he can.

On Tuesday, he did just that, turning aside 30 shots. Ward was especially solid in the third, including the last two-and-a-half minutes of the third after the Preds pulled Pekka Rinne for the extra attacker.

Other things that went well: Chicago’s last-ranked power play was 1-for-3, producing five shots on goal. Their last-ranked penalty kill was 2-for-2, allowing just two shots on goal.

It all equates on some good stuff to build on. It’s been a while since Chicago produced an effort like that. The blueprint is there.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Stars’ Bishop returns to game after taking shoulder to the head

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Dallas Stars fans were able to breathe a sigh of relief as the team came out for the third period on Tuesday.

Nearing the mid-way point fo the second period, Calgary Flames forward Garnet Hathaway went to challenge Bishop, who was playing the puck behind the net.

Bishop was able to move the puck to his defenseman but the incoming Hathaway’s shoulder caught him in the mask. The impact knocked Bishop over and he was slow to get up before being pulled from the game.

Here’s the hit:

Hathaway was given a two-minute minor for goaltender interference. Stars defenseman Roman Polak got a roughing minor after going after Hathaway following the hit.

Bishop stopped all nine shots he faced in the 33:37 he played. Anton Khudobin logged 6:23 in relief before Bishop led the Stars out for the third period.

Bishiop had a 10-8-1 record coming into Tuesday with a .920 save percentage. The Stars were leading 2-0 in the third.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck