Sometimes you get caught in the path of destiny’s freight train. A fate train, if you will.
That’s where the Vegas Golden Knights spent the past couple of weeks, trying simultaneously to beat the Montreal Canadiens and a 28-year curse, where the country that cares the most about the Stanley Cup annually has watched it ship south for the summer each year.
Now, at the expense of the Golden Knights, Canada gets another shot.
And a town that has had nothing but a contender since getting their expansion team four seasons ago? They just watched hockey’s eldest franchise show them a thing or two about playoff hockey, closing off this series in overtime with a 3-2 win in Game 6.
“(Montreal) owned the key moments of the series,” said Vegas head coach Peter DeBoer, in the wake of another close-but-no-cigar season for the Golden Knights. “When they got a chance, they stuck it in the net. When they needed a save, they got a big save. They won the overtime battles. They won the special teams battles.
“If you’re losing those areas of the game, you’re putting yourselves in a tough spot.”
Artturi Lehkonen was the unlikely overtime hero, "Finn-ishing" the Golden Knights with a dandy roof job off a slick pass from Phillip Danault. The goal came after Max Pacioretty had stared down Carey Price from tight, shooter’s range, but failed to beat the man who enters the Stanley Cup Final as Montreal's Conn Smythe favourite.
It was a microcosm of the series: Perhaps Vegas’ most lethal scorer could not solve Price, and moments later Lehkonen — a third-liner who will give you 12 goals a season — pots his first of the series to drive the stake through the Golden Knights’ armour.
“It just came down to they did a better job scoring goals in the series,” said Reilly Smith, Vegas’ most dangerous forward in this series. “The opportunities were there for us. They got a breakaway or an opportunity and it ended up in the back of the net. We didn’t do a good enough job on our chances.”
Let’s face it: Vegas’ biggest shooters choked in this series.
The power play finished the series at 0-for-15, a crippling outage and likely the decisive failure in this series for Vegas.
“Their D play hard. They’re big, they’re strong. Their forward group is responsible,” Stone said of the Canadiens. “I can praise them all I want, but ultimately it falls down on myself and the top players on this team. We had some guys produce night in, night out, but as far as myself and a number of other guys…
“I got skunked this series,” he concluded. “That can’t happen. I’m the captain of this team. The leader of this team. I take a lot of responsibility for what just occurred.”
Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki were miles better than any Vegas forward — two small, skilled Montreal players whose ability to pull you out of your chair is off the charts. That two kids could become the difference makers against a Vegas team with this much playoff experience is simply amazing, befitting of the tale the Habs are penning here.
How hard are these Habs to play against?
“They stick with their 1-1-3 structure,” said goalie Robin Lehner. “And they made it hard for not just us. The made it hard for Winnipeg and Toronto, with some of the best goal scorers in the world.”
“When you’re concentrating on defending and you have the ability to counter-punch with guys who don’t need multiple looks to stick a puck in the net, you’re a very dangerous team,” DeBoer said of Montreal. “That was the story here. They concentrated on defending, shutting guys down. And when the puck went the other way, on Caufield’s stick, Suzuki’s stick — they put it in the net. That’s playoff hockey.”
In their four seasons since joining a an expansion team, the Golden Knights have bowed out once as a Stanley Cup finalist, and twice more in the Round of Four. They have never missed the playoffs, small solace as they pack up their gear and head home to the desert as a failed semi-finalist for the second straight year.
It doesn’t have to get much better in Vegas, but it can’t stay the same either.
“There’s another door we have to find a way to barge through at this time of year,” agreed DeBoer. “Everyone. Coaches included.”