The Vegas Golden Knights were devastated to be eliminated in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final at Rogers Place in Edmonton on Monday, and it went far beyond the fact they lost to the Dallas Stars 3-2 in overtime after leading 2-0 in the third period.
“We all feel like this is a wasted opportunity,” forward Reilly Smith said.
The Golden Knights are an incredible success story by any reasonable measure. In three seasons since entering the NHL as an expansion team in 2017-18, they have made the Stanley Cup Playoffs three times, the conference final twice and the Stanley Cup Final once.
But their standard of success is as high as it gets, and so their disappointments are all the more bitter.
When they made the Final in their inaugural season, they took a 1-0 series lead against the Washington Capitals and lost four straight games.
When they returned to the playoffs last season, they took a 3-1 series lead against the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference First Round and lost three straight games, blowing a 3-0 lead in the third period of Game 7 and losing 5-4 in overtime.
Nothing but the Stanley Cup would do this season.
Vegas replaced coach Gerard Gallant with Peter DeBoer, the former coach of the rival Sharks, on Jan. 15. DeBoer said his pitch was that he pushed the right buttons in the playoffs. General manager Kelly McCrimmon said in a statement DeBoer could “help us achieve our ultimate goal.”
Then the Golden Knights acquired defenseman Alec Martinez, a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Los Angeles Kings, on Feb. 19 and goalie Robin Lehner, a Vezina Trophy finalist last season, on Feb. 24. Again, it was about the ultimate goal.
When the season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus, they were on an 11-2-0 run. They had excellent attendance for voluntary, small-group workouts in Vegas because of the belief that this was their season.
And when play finally resumed?
They went 3-0-0 in the round-robin portion of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers to earn the top seed in the Western Conference, defeated the Chicago Blackhawks in five games in the first round and took a 3-1 lead against the Vancouver Canucks in the second round.
At that point, they were 10-2-0 in the postseason.
“We had everyone, including our taxi squad, be ready for this for two months prior, three months prior, and put everything into it,” Smith said. “For our organization, we want a Stanley Cup and we didn’t get it, so we’re pretty upset.”
Everything changed when the Golden Knights ran into two hot backup goalies: Thatcher Demko of the Canucks, filling in for Jacob Markstrom, and Anton Khudobin of the Stars, filling in for Ben Bishop.
They needed seven games to defeat Vancouver and managed one win against Dallas, going 2-6 in their last eight games. After scoring 45 goals in their first 12 postseason games, they scored 12 in their last eight games despite outshooting the opposition 293-172.
“It was a tight series,” Smith said of the conference final. “I think our team probably outplayed them for 90 percent of it. But they scored timely goals, and that’s just what cost us.”
After 51 days in the bubble away from family and friends, the Golden Knights will leave with nothing.
“Never had one complaint or a crack in the commitment of the guys to pursue the goal of trying to win the Stanley Cup here,” DeBoer said. “I thought our group was exceptional.
“You know, I didn’t even prepare something to talk to them about after the game tonight, because I just didn’t think we would lose. I felt even the games we lose here in the bubble, I felt we could win, and we could have won.
“So, you know, it’s the toughest trophy in hockey to win, and it’s an unbelievably tough road, and we’ll learn some things from this about what works in the playoffs and how you score in the playoffs.”
The good news is that the Golden Knights should keep contending. They must settle the goalie situation between Lehner, who took over the starting job and can become an unrestricted free agent Oct. 9, and Marc-Andre Fleury, who is the face of the franchise and signed for two more seasons. Otherwise, the vast majority of the roster is set. DeBoer hasn’t had even a half-season of hockey with them yet.
“I’m still getting used to and getting to know the group,” DeBoer said.
But no matter when next season begins, it’s going to be a long, long offseason.
“This year is probably the best, most skilled team that I’ve played on in my career, and to not win the Stanley Cup …” Smith said, his voice trailing off. “You know, that was our one goal. We didn’t want anything short of that, so definitely feel defeated. It’s positive looking into the future, but that’s not really what we’re doing right now.”