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
• 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 email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.