As the Vegas Golden Knights celebrated their third trip to the National Hockey League’s final four in the past four years, Dunnville, Ont., native Peter DeBoer — himself a 12th round draft pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs back in 1988 — managed to find some Canadian perspective for the anomaly that are the expansion Golden Knights.
“It’s so hard to win,” began DeBoer. “Everybody talks about winning the Stanley Cup. I’m an Ontario guy, I watch the Toronto Maple Leafs closely, I was drafted by the Leafs, always been a fan of the franchise… They haven’t got out of the first round in what? Seventeen years? And that’s a good franchise, well coached.
“What these men here [in Vegas] have accomplished is unreal.”
Ironically, it is the Colorado Avalanche who have taken up residence in Done-ville. They lost Game 6 on Thursday by a 6-3 score, swept in six by Vegas.
Sure, the Avs won the first two games. Then the going got tough, and the Golden Knights won four straight.
An Avs team that won the Presidents Trophy, that had a Vezina-calibre goalie, that appeared to have figured out how to play sound defensive hockey this season, simply made more mistakes than their opponents.
What went wrong? What do they look back on that perhaps could have unfolded differently?
“There are so many things. I could sit here for 15 minutes,” said captain Gabriel Landeskog, whose own defensive miscues won’t be overlooked. “We try not to live in the past, to stay in the moment, in the present. But evaluating the series, in Game 1 and 2 we found a way to win when they were the better team. Game 3 we didn’t play well at all... Game 5 we were in control, make three turnovers and they score on all three.
“Tonight, we fought hard and battled. Kept coming back. A couple of bounces go the wrong way, a couple of shifts when we’re not really engaged, real focussed, and they capitalize on them.”
If playoff hockey is a shift-by-shift experience, if one mistake can cost a hockey game, then the Avalanche will go down in history as too cavalier to beat a deep, opportunistic team like Vegas.
“As a group, we learned a lot,” said Landeskog, whose team bows out in Round 2 for the third-straight season. “We’re going to have to learn a lot going forward. Yeah, we’ll have to learn from this one and move on.”
“There’s always next year,” deadpanned superstar Nathan MacKinnon, who was excellent in Game 6. “I'm going into my ninth year next year and I haven't won s-- so I'm definitely motivated. It just sucks."
Colorado is a fine team that’s loaded with skill, and this was one hell of an entertaining series. But the Avs don’t play a game that is conducive to playoff success. They’re too loose, too chancy and, as much fun as it is to watch, far too wide open at a time of year when you can’t be happy with giving up four goals, knowing you’ll score five or six.
The Avs hemorrhaged scoring chances at the most crucial moments in this series, never able to sit on a lead or even play a game where the opponent was forced to earn their goals without any help. In the end, the Vegas defence was more stout and dependable, with a guy like Nick Holden stepping into the lineup and holding his ground, while neither Patrik Nemeth nor Samuel Girard (minus-4 Thursday) distinguished themselves in this series.
A championship-worthy team doesn’t cough up four straight after gaining a 2-0 lead, sorry.
“I don’t think there was a person in the hockey world who, when we were down 2-0, thought we would finish this off in six tonight. That was real,” said DeBoer, accurately. “We just blocked out the noise and went to work. Scraped and scratched and found a way.
“We beat a team that maybe has the best analytics in the past 10 years. A team people were handing the Stanley Cup to pre-season, all season, and for sure after they rolled through the first round.”
Today, MacKinnon finds himself part of this stat: In the past four seasons, the 12 Hart Trophy finalists have won just two playoff rounds.
It tells you what this sport demands, and that the formula requires so much more than just a great regular-season team. The game changes in the post-season, and a playoff win requires far more participants than a regular season win does.
“The margin for error is so small at this time of year,” lamented Landeskog.
“We were the best defensive team in the league in a lot of categories this year,” defended MacKinnon. “They’re not grittier than us either. We have a lot of warriors in our dressing room.”
There is something, however, that a perennial final four team has that a perennial playoff also-ran does not. Something in the DNA of this Vegas team that allows it to win, and something inside the Avalanche's veins that allows their blood to be spilled.
“We’re the sum of our parts,” said DeBoer. “We don’t have the superstar power that they do.”
Hear that, Maple Leafs? Edmonton Oilers?
The sum of their parts.
That’s the winning formula.