WASHINGTON, D.C. – It took 100 games, but for the very first time in the gleaming history of the Vegas Golden Knights, we are seeing cracks in their armour.
And they’re growing into giant fissures.
In the sombre aftermath of the expansion team’s only set of consecutive losses in this remarkable run, the Knights mouths spoke of belief they could turn the championship series around, but their body language and tone spoke otherwise.
There were uncomfortable admissions, a touch of testiness, some stark honesty, no-shows, and even excuses.
In trouncing the Knights 3-1 in D.C. to snatch a 2-1 lead in the Stanley Cup Final, the Washington Capitals used the same recipe the Knights had employed to reach this dance: four lines charging hard, stingy defence, superb neutral-zone play, kill ’em on odd-man rushes, dress the better goalie, and — here’s the frightening one —
That’s been the calling card of the Knights since Day One:
Well, tell that to the O face:
"We’re just not playing our identity," lamented Deryk Engelland, a bringer of truth.
The de facto captain is a stay-at-home defenceman. At one point Saturday, he felt compelled to drive a rush and create one of the scoring chances so many forwards have been unable or unwilling to.
Marc-Andre Fleury notwithstanding, Engelland admitted an effort problem has invaded the team over the past 120 minutes.
"Yeah, all year we’ve had all 20 guys going. Hasn’t been the case," he said. "Our goalie’s been bailing us out with huge saves all night. We have to bear down and be better for him."
Here are the Knights that failed to register a shot in Game 3: James Neal, Reilly Smith, Ryan Carpenter, David Perron, William Karlsson, Ryan Reaves, and Nate Schmidt.
Vegas’s second unit of Perron-Haula-Neal was on the ice for all three goals against. Haula, the only Finn in the final, hasn’t scored in nine games. A cluster of Finnish media is crisscrossing the U.S. to cover him. He declined to meet them post-game.
Shea Theodore had an awful night. The young defenceman’s snapped stick led to Evgeny Kuznetsov’s game-winner on a 3-on-1 rush, and his lazy legs negated a power play when Matt Niskanen of all people bust past him. Coach Gerard Gallant benched him a shift.
Sensing a reporter working a Theodore-needs-to-be-better angle, Neal defended his teammate prickly.
The happy-go-lucky, house-money vibe of everybody’s second-favourite team felt miles away.
How would Neal describe the mentality of the room as they face their greatest adversity?
"We’re fine," Neal said. "We’re fine." Then he looked away.
Jonathan Marchessault (18 shots this series) and Alex Tuch were engaged. After that? Among forwards? A big sack of nothing.
Perron may be battling injury but he’s coming off a career-best 66-point year and hasn’t scored a goal since March 4 in New Jersey, a run of ineffectiveness that now includes 13 playoff games. He used the excuse that he sat out two games in each of rounds 1 and 3.
"I’m going to make it count when it counts," he said.
On the broken-stick, 3-on-1 goal, Perron said: "When someone breaks their stick, it kinda freezes everybody for half a second."
Even though the Knights started the championship with home-ice advantage and cruised here with less adversity, Perron played the underdog card.
"We’re still underdogs against them," Perron said. "They’re a great team over there and now the pressure is on them to keep going."
There is pressure for Gallant to adapt. He must consider inserting William Carrier and/or Tomas Tatar for Game 4 or shaking up the ineffective middle lines.
"If I gotta start pulling strings at this time of year, it’s going to be tough," Gallant said.
You don’t win the Stanley Cup with Tomas Nosek (three goals, including the only one Saturday) as your best sniper, especially when Washington is getting the best out of Chandler Stephenson and Jay Beagle on top of Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Oshie, and John Carlson.
Reaves, one third of an excellent fourth line, says the Knights are "playing too cute." In only mustering 22 shots, they fed the Washington attack with blunders around the blue lines.
"We weren’t ready," said Reaves, who whiffed on a one-timer six feet away from a gaping net. "We got outplayed early, and in the Stanley Cup Final you don’t want to be clawing back like that. So, just not good enough."
Both Schmidt and Tuch confessed that nerves have been a negative factor.
Engelland refuses to blame exhaustion.
"We’ve had twice as much time as they’ve had off in the playoffs. We should have lots left in the tank," he said. "We just gotta dig down and go harder."
The Knights talked internally about it after the first loss, and they’ll talk about it again. Make the same play. Shoot more. Win puck battles. Make it count when it counts.
"Relax and understand it’s just the game you’ve been playing for your whole life," Schmidt said. "It’s just a little bit of raised stakes."
Clubs that lead the championship series 2-1 go on to hoist the Cup 80 per cent of the time, but the Knights have been bucking the odds since October.
Now is no time to fold.