Three-goal first period helps put Capitals one win away from Lord Stanley

34 Comments

There are moments that define every Stanley Cup Final for the team that gets to hoist Lord Stanley’s mug.

In Game 2, it was Braden Holtby’s paddle save. In Game 3, it was Evgeny Kuznetsov’s one-goal, one-assist performance after being a question mark heading into the game with an undisclosed injury.

But Game 4’s defining moment had nothing to do with the Washington Capitals at all, at least not initially.

With the Washington Capitals taking a 3-1 series lead in the best-of-7 back to Vegas after a 6-2 win on Monday, it was James Neal‘s first-period gaffe on a wide-open net that might haunt the expansion Golden Knights for a while to come.

The miss rattled the Capitals to attention and the ensuing a three-goal outburst by Washington only illuminated further the magnitude of Neal’s near-miss.

T.J. Oshie got things started on the power play, Tom Wilson made it worse and Devante Smith-Pelly twisted the dagger on a bad turnover as the Capitals took a 3-0 lead into the first intermission.

Vegas never recovered.

They struck iron three times in the first period and heard that familiar ‘ping’ sound twice more in the second frame.

John Carlson hit a post, too, only his shot caromed off the inside of it and hit mesh not long after to make it 4-0 as Washington’s lethal power play kept its reign of destruction (they’re 4-for-12 in the series now after going 3-for-5 in Game 4). Washington has 20 goals on the power play in the playoffs.

Evgeny Kuznetsov provided the cross-ice pass to Carlson, giving him a hat-trick of assists in the game and his 30th point of the playoffs. Kuznetsov added another late in the game for a four-point night.

Did someone say Conn Smythe?

That trophy could be in the hands of Kuznetsov as early as Thursday night (although let’s not kid ourselves — it’s probably going to be given to Alex Ovechkin) in Vegas as the series shifts back to Nevada for Game 5.

Vegas managed to find two goals (Neal with a hint of redemption and Reilly Smith found twine, too) in the third period, but it was all just a little too late.

If there was hope of a comeback, it was ripped apart by Michal Kempny‘s one-timer with just over six minutes left to make it 5-2 and then cemented by Brett Connolly‘s 6-2 marker as Washington enjoyed a two-man advantage.

For Vegas, it’s win or bust now. Everything that got them this far seems to have fled the vicinity.

Marc-Andre Fleury continues to struggle, putting up his fourth consecutive sub-.800 save percentage performance. Vegas’ treasure trove of goals has imploded and their speed has run out of gas.

Vegas scored six goals in Game 1 but has just five in the three games that followed.

And they now own the most daunting of tasks: win three in a row.

The math isn’t good.

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 
Game 4 Monday, June 4 – Capitals 6, Golden Knights 2 (Washington leads 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


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

James Neal’s miss leads to Capitals’ offensive eruption (Video)

1 Comment

Oh man, James Neal is going to see this one in his nightmares.

We’ve already seen the save of the Stanley Cup Final. Now we have the frontrunner for miss of the series as well.

Neal found a way to miss a wide-open net from point-blank, firing the puck from the left side of Braden Holtby off the right post behind him, off Holtby’s blocker and back into play.

Vegas began the game on a tear, pushing the pressure in the Capitals zone for the first six minutes or so of the period, but failed to capitalize on their chances after hitting three posts early on.

Neal’s miss proved to be devastating, given how Washington stuck it in sixth gear and began scoring at will.

Colin Miller took a tripping penalty not long after Neal’s miss and the T.J. Oshie promptly ended Vegas’ momentum as he snatched a 1-0 lead for Washington.

With that wound still fresh, Tom Wilson rubbed some more salt in it, making it 2-0 late. And the bleeding didn’t stop there as Devante Smith-Pelly scored with 21 seconds left in the period.

A game of inches, they say.

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


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

‘Spare parts’ doing the unimaginable in Vegas

Getty Images
2 Comments

WINNIPEG — Spare parts. Castoffs. Rejects. The unwanted.

“Misfits,” James Neal added, interrupting to offer another name to the list he’s heard before Thursday’s 3-2 overtime win against the Winnipeg Jets.

Take one of those labels and paste it into a thesaurus search. What you’ll find is an endless array of monikers that have been applied to the Vegas Golden Knights, both right after they were assembled, and still to this day — even as they occupy the top spot in the Western Conference as of Friday.

It’s become a running narrative this season. A team that was forged out of a spare parts bin, built with the near certain likelihood they’d fail given, well, history.

They’d need better parts to put forth a better, more reliable product. Those parts would take some time to acquire. Some would have to be built in-house while others would be acquired through meticulous vetting to ensure the proper fit.

Few, if any, figured an unknown product would fit so seamlessly together. It’s like if Apple’s most recent iPhone X was the first iPhone, skipping all the refinement, the little detail adjustments and tweaks, and stumbling into a masterpiece on the first try.

For Neal, who has clearly paid attention to what has been written in print and spoken on TV and radio, the parts assembled perhaps finally had a platform to perform at peak efficiency.

“I think the best part is everyone had a fresh chance with a new team, a chance they maybe hadn’t had in the past — something to prove,” he said. “Whether you’re an established player or an unestablished player or a three-time Stanley Cup champion like (Marc-Andre Fleury), you still have something to prove.”

Neal said the various parts of the Golden Knights had to come together in short order. The fit, he says, has been nothing short of remarkable.

“We wanted to come in and work hard,” he said. “We knew we could be competitive with the group we had. There was no reason why would couldn’t come in and be a good team.”

Fellow forward Brendan Leipsic fits into the unestablished category that Neal explained.

Leipsic, a rookie, had six games of NHL experience prior to this season. Drafted by the Nashville Predators in the third round in 2012, Leipsic was eventually traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs. When the Leafs left him exposed, he was snatched up by George McPhee.

Since then, he’s played a further 39 NHL games.

“We were a team of a lot of guys who didn’t know each other,” Leipsic said. “We were in a situation unlike one that any of us had really been in.”

The mandate from head coach Gerard Gallant was simple: Come in, work hard.

“It will give us a chance to win,” Leipsic said, reiterating the words Gallant spoke when the team met for the first time last summer.

Leipsic said Gallant’s black and white approach to coaching has helped. Players know what they need to do. There’s no grey area.

“And I think guys like playing for each other,” Leipsic said, adding ‘blue collar’ to the list.

“It’s not a huge surprise to us.”

The Golden Knights aren’t infallible. They possess the flaws like any other team in the National Hockey League.

Gallant was not happy with his team’s game after Thursday’s win, despite his team winning its 34th game, which made them the most successful expansion team in its inaugural season, passing the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and the Florida Panthers, both who won 33 games during the 1993-94 season.

“We weren’t great,” Gallant said of his team’s effort. “We found a way. We know we’re playing a good team that plays a physical game. Like I said, I don’t think we were great and we didn’t play one of our better games but again we found a way.”

Resilient and relentless — the real identity of the Vegas Golden Knights.

“We’re a team that is four lines that continue to come at you shift after shift after shift,” Neal said. “We used (what was said about us) as motivation. We still are.”

Fittingly, Neal summed up his team by using something he’s heard many times before.

“It’s a good combination of parts.”


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

The Buzzer: Pacioretty continues hot streak

Getty Images
1 Comment

Players of the Night:

Max Pacioretty, Montreal Canadiens: Here’s a name you haven’t seen often in these parts this season. But Pacioretty had two goals tonight, the opener for the Canadiens and the game-winner with 1:18 left in the third period to give the Canadiens a 3-2 win over the Washington Capitals. He also added an assist on Montreal’s other goal. Truth be told, Pacioretty has been sizzling lately with six goals and an assist in his past six games.

John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks: Gibson had a quiet night for the most part until the third period, but he was stellar when called upon and made 23 saves, including a second-period beauty (which you will see below) to help his team to a 2-1 win against the Los Angeles Kings.

Highlights of the Night:

James Neal had all the moves to help the Vegas Golden Knights secure a point on the road in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Florida Panthers.

John Gibson got just enough on this puck to redirect it off the post and out for quite the save:

Factoid of the Night:

MISC:

Scores:

Panthers 4, Golden Knights 3 (OT)

Canadiens 3, Capitals 2

Ducks 2, Kings 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

Golden Knights can’t stop, won’t stop

Getty Images
8 Comments

There may not be a more intriguing story in the NHL this year than what is going on in Sin City.

Defying all the odds, the Vegas Golden Knights — a team comprised of spare parts that general manager George McPhee picked out of a discard bin this past summer — sit on top of the Pacific Division at Thanksgiving after a 4-2 win against the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday.

The league-wide off day due to the holiday should give you enough time to come to the realization that yes, indeed, your eyes are not deceiving you.

Instead, the NHL has a brand new team that continues to re-write hockey history.

The Golden Knights matched an NHL record for most wins by a team through the first 20 games of its inaugural season on Wednesday, moving to 13-6-1 on the year.

They became the first expansion team to start a season 3-0-0 and first to win their first six of seven back in October. On Nov. 4, they tied a league record for shortest number of games played to achieve nine wins an inaugural season and continue to do things no other expansion team has done.

How a team full of players not good enough to be protected prior to the expansion draft is doing so well is anyone’s guess.

Chip on their collective shoulders? Perhaps. A little Las Vegas magic? Quite possible.

What is certain is that the Golden Knights have little trouble scoring. And scoring helps with winning.

James Neal, a former 40-goal man, leads the way with 11 goals. Only Filip Forsberg on the Nashville Predators, Neal’s former team, has as many. William Karlsson is second with 10. No one on his former team, the Columbus Blue Jackets, has reached double digits yet.

David Perron, Reilly Smith, Jonathan Marchessault and Erik Haula aren’t far behind with six goals apiece, and Vegas is eighth in expected goals for percentage.

The math adds up to show the Golden Knights tied for fourth in goals for with 72. They’re also in the top third when it comes to least goals against, a remarkable feat given that they’ve had to dig deep — really deep — into their stable of goaltenders thanks to injury.

Furthermore, If the playoffs were determined by possession metrics and began tomorrow, the Golden Knights would be one of the 16 headed to the promised land.

Maybe Vegas just likes to win. And really, what do they have to lose?


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