ARLINGTON, Va. — Gerard Gallant is the kind of guy you’d love to sit down and have a beer with.
Easy-going and even-keeled, the Vegas Golden Knights coach is matter-of-fact in his dealings whether he’s talking to a young defenceman in his office or with reporters from the ominous-looking podium at the Stanley Cup Final.
So it was notable Sunday when his feisty, competitive side briefly bubbled to the surface. Gallant didn’t appreciate a line of questioning that veered towards the struggles of Shea Theodore — dinged with a minus on four of the last five even-strength goals scored by the Washington Capitals — and shot back with a spirited defence of his talented blue liner.
“Did Shea do something really bad? He plays the game like everybody else,” said Gallant. “He made a couple mistakes. Ended up in the back of our net. A lot of guys make mistakes in a hockey game, they don’t end up in the back of the net.
“Shea’s a 22-year-old kid who I love, he’s a great player. He’s going to be a star in this league.”
The Golden Knights only trail 2-1 in this Stanley Cup Final, but they feel like they’re under fire. They haven’t played anywhere near their best against Washington and are in danger of letting this magical expansion season slip away with Game 4 looming on Monday night.
Gallant is here to stem the tide. He’s been chasing the Stanley Cup since he was a young boy growing up in Summerside, P.E.I., and has never had an opportunity as good as this one to win it. That’s something he’s reminding his players — that they are still in a great position, even with Washington coming at them like a tidal wave.
Heck, they could spend another lifetime in this sport and never find themselves in a better one.
“Just gotta know in the back of our heads it’s still there,” said Vegas defenceman Luca Sbisa.
“Everyone’s starting to write us off,” added teammate David Perron. “It’s not something we’re not used to. We lost the first game against Winnipeg [in the Western Conference Final], we had a lot of media thinking we’d get run over the entire series against them. We found a way to win four in a row, win in five.
“We’re in a familiar situation with a lot of doubters. It’s fine with us. We have to step up and play the right way. Play the way that made us successful. It’s a new day today. A new opportunity.”
The first step is belief. The next is execution.
Gallant is contemplating personnel changes to spark his sagging second and third lines — with Tomas Tatar and/or Oscar Lindberg the most likely to dress in Game 4. The only goal scored by a member of the Golden Knights middle-six in this series came from James Neal, which means that Perron, Erik Haula, Ryan Carpenter, Cody Eakin and Alex Tuch are all in need of a breakthrough.
“We need more from our other players,” said Gallant.
They need to morph back into the Golden Misfits and rediscover the wolfpack-like mentality that pressures opponents into turnovers. At its best, Vegas is a team that brings numbers on the forecheck and makes it tough to break the puck out against.
There hasn’t been nearly enough of it against a resilient Capitals team that is riding a wave of emotion and starting to dream of hoisting the Cup.
“I think you solve that, you play more puck support,” said Gallant. “You just support the puck. When you play a wide game, it’s not going to work against Washington. They do a good job in the neutral zone, they work hard, and they compete hard. But when you play that support game and you’re making short, little plays, you’ve got support coming across, you’ve got your D-men joining, you’re going to have some opportunities.”
They’ve had their chances. The numbers tell the tale of a close series, with Vegas controlling 53.22 per cent of the overall shot attempts at 5-on-5 and 50.39 per cent of the total scoring chances. But they’ve been playing from behind for the last five periods, inflating those numbers slightly with score effects.
So, while Gallant is going to defend his players, he’s also going to be honest with them.
It’s now or never. There is no time to wait.
“We’ve gotta step up our game. In the three games, we haven’t been good enough,” he said. “If we don’t step up our game, the same result is going to happen [Monday] night. We’ll see what we’re made of.”