How did this happen? Vegas grapples with 5-game series loss

EDMONTON, Alberta — Peter DeBoer didn’t prepare a speech to give his Vegas Golden Knights in the event they lost Game 5 of the Western Conference final to end their run in the NHL bubble, because he didn’t think they’d lose.

After they did, in stinging fashion blowing a two-goal lead and giving up a power-play goal in overtime, DeBoer and the Golden Knights were left to grapple with the question: How could this happen? Vegas controlled the play for much of the series, outshot the Dallas Stars 166-118 and looked like the better team, yet it lost in five games to bow out of the playoffs.

”I felt even the games we lost here in the bubble I felt we could win – we could’ve won,” DeBoer said. ”We were right there. It’s a very slim margin. We just couldn’t get a timely goal in order to put us in the position to be on the right side of that ledger.”

Vegas scored one fewer goal than Dallas, yet the Stars are the ones going to the Stanley Cup Final. By all conventional wisdom, the Golden Knights should probably be leading a series that’s ongoing, but that’s hockey.

”It was a tight series,” forward Reilly Smith said. ”I think our team probably outplayed them for 90% of it, but they scored timely goals.”

It’s hard to even find a scapegoat, which is usually not the case when a team loses four games to one in a series. Zach Whitecloud sent the puck over the glass for a delay-of-game penalty that paved the way for Denis Gurianov‘s OT goal, but teammates said Game 5 wasn’t on the young defenseman, whose play helped the Golden Knights get this far.

Goaltender Robin Lehner wasn’t the problem, either, though he conceded, ”You wish you come up with a save there” on Dallas’ tying and series-winning goals. After DeBoer made him his starter over face of the franchise Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas faces a big question of what to do: Probably extend Lehner and go from there.

Those are questions for the weeks ahead. The past two months were full of the Golden Knights winning before it fell apart.

Vegas looked like a buzz-saw, winning 10 of its first 12 postseason games. Smith called it ”probably the best, most skilled team” he has been on, and for almost half the playoffs it looked like that and more.

Then, Vancouver goaltender Jacob Markstrom got hurt, and rookie Thatcher Demko came in and stopped 123 of 125 shots. The Golden Knights survived by winning Game 7 that round, but some damage was done to their psyche.

”There’s no doubt that the last couple games of the Vancouver series against Demko probably rattled our confidence a little bit,” DeBoer said.

Then Stars journeyman goalie Anton Khudobin did his best Demko impression and his teammates forced Vegas to take shots – a lot of them – from mostly outside. Dallas coach Rick Bowess said, ”We’ll give them that,” while conceding this wasn’t really a blowout series by any means.

”Vegas did a great job,” Bowness said. ”That franchise had a great year, and it’s a great franchise. They put up more of a fight than the 4-1 will tell you, so congratulations to them.”

There was little solace in that for Vegas, which was a legitimate title contender for the third consecutive season. The organization has only been around for three seasons but has already moved quickly from expansion darling to NHL powerhouse.

With that prestige also comes higher expectations, so there wasn’t a lot of optimism about getting this far or the potential long playoff runs ahead.

”Definitely feel defeated,” Smith said. ”It’s positive looking into the future, but that’s not what we’re doing right now. We all feel like this is a wasted opportunity.”

DeBoer, who took over when Gerard Gallant was fired in January, fell just short of taking a third different team to the final. He said the Golden Knights are ”right in that window” to win in the years ahead, if they can put into practice what a brutal loss like this teaches players and coaches.

”We’ve got to learn some things from this about what works in the playoffs and how you score in the playoffs,” DeBoer said. ”Another learning lesson for our guys at this time of year: fighting through, persevering, finding a way to get yourself out of a slump, getting your confidence back quicker, all those things. And I’m sure on coaching, too. What can I do differently? There’s things I’m sure that I could’ve done differently that I’ve got to look at.”

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    Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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    COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

    Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

    “It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

    Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

    “That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

    Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

    Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

    Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

    Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

    “We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

    Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

    Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

    Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

    Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

    Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

    STREAKING

    Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

    NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

    UP NEXT

    Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

    Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

    Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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    PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

    T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

    Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

    Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

    Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

    Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

    Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

    The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

    Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

    UP NEXT

    Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

    Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.

    Penguins prospect Sam Poulin taking leave of absence

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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Sam Poulin is taking a leave of absence from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

    Penguins general manager Ron Hextall announced on Wednesday that the 21-year-old Poulin, Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, is stepping away due to “personal reasons.”

    “The Penguins support Sam’s decision to take time away from hockey to focus on himself,” Hextall said in a release. “As with all of our players, our priority is them as individuals first. We look forward to having him back with the team when he is ready.”

    Hextall said Poulin will return home to Quebec and continue to work out on his own.

    Poulin made his NHL debut in October and had one assist in three games before heading back to the AHL. Poulin had four goals in 13 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the time of his decision.

    Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

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    DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

    The team announced the news on social media.

    MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

    The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.