This whole playoff run, and indeed, the entire season, was a collection of good bounces for Vegas.
Until three games ago.
Early in this postseason, every time an opponent made a mistake against Vegas, it was in the back of their net pretty quickly. And every mistake that the Golden Knights made, Marc-Andre Fleury was there to clean up the mess, even when it seemed impossible.
This is simply no longer the case, and all the evidence needed to prove that came, conveniently, in the first period last night.
The play people immediately — and unfortunately — dubbed “The Post,” not to be confused with the overwrought Spielberg pablum, shows why the Vegas offense has seemingly “dried up.” Approximately 999 times out of 1,000, a guy like James Neal getting the puck six feet from a wide open net means it’s a goal for Vegas, but the number didn’t come up this time around.
Few are giving Matt Niskanen the credit for Neal’s hesitation and eventual miss, but he deserves pretty much all of it. He was at the outside of the net, sure, but he extended his leg just enough to give Neal something to think about, and that was all the occupied space needed to get the shot to bounce harmlessly off the post (and Braden Holtby).
This is the kind of play that went in for Vegas pretty much all season, especially through a guy like Neal, whose whole calling card is scoring goals.
Then at the other end, just 5:23 later, the Caps scored through TJ Oshie on the kind of bounce that frankly hasn’t happened to Vegas all year. Evgeny Kuznetsov put a shot off Fleury from in front of the net and it bounced right into Oshie’s skates, dropped onto his blade, and went back up and over Fleury by just a few inches. It was 1-0 less than 10 minutes in and the game felt weirdly like an academic exercise.
By the time Tom Wilson, all of a sudden looking like Wayne Gretzky, weaved with Kuznetsov through the freakin’ Smith-Karlsson-Marchessault line on an offensive-zone faceoff play like it wasn’t even there, people were already making jokes about scuttling parade plans in Vegas.
And when Devante Smith-Pelly made a similar play to Oshie’s — a blocked shot ended up in his skates and right onto his stick, which put the puck in the back of the net with shocking ease — with 20.5 seconds left in the period, Vegas’s charter jet was already preparing for takeoff on the tarmac a few miles away.
Put simply, Vegas went from getting every bounce to suffering on every one. The Neal miss will haunt his dreams forever. Fleury will mentally replay the Oshie and Smith-Pelly goals for quite awhile as well.
With those three goals, and the Caps now holding a 3-1 lead in the series after losing Game 1, the Hockey Gods Barry Trotz loves so dearly to invoke highlighted a lot of issues with the talk around the Golden Knights’ success over the past few months.
Yo hockey gods, we do something to upset you or what?
— Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) June 5, 2018
Make no mistake: This was a game Vegas dominated. Some of that is score effects, but some of it too is the fact that Washington packed it in around the net, and Holtby has been awesome. Maybe you want to call the goalposts the Game 4 co-MVPs, I’ll give that to ya, but again, how long did we go attribtuing Vegas getting 75 percent of the bounces in their games to go their way to something other than luck? Sometimes you don’t always get what you deserve in this sport and if Vegas deserves better than to be going back home down 3-1, well, maybe the Kings or Jets deserved to come out of their combined nine games against this team with more than one solitary win.
Weirdly absent from the talk about “Vegas is so resilient” was the fact that a .947 goalie makes it really easy to look resilient because you’re only going to give up a goal on every 20 shots or so.
Weirdly absent from the talk about “What’s wrong with Vegas” is the fact that Fleury has only turned in a .845 save percentage in this Cup Final.
There are, of course, mitigating factors. Vegas’s scoring chances allowed per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey (of which fewer than half were from high-danger areas) ballooned from 24.5 before the Cup final to 35.4 against the Capitals. But that doesn’t explain what is now a 102-point drop in save percentage, at least not mathematically.
I guess my point is that it’s really easy to play with a lead, and to bounce back from a bad shift or a goofy turnover when your goalie never gives up a goal. When he starts giving up goals (16 in four games all of a sudden, after just 27 against in the previous 15) boy it’s a lot harder to grind out your dozenth one-goal win of the playoffs, huh?
Did they stop being resilient? Did all that calm in the face of calamity just evaporate between Games 1 and 2 in Vegas? Did their confidence go away somewhere over Nebraska on the trip out east?
The real reason for this — “there’s no reason for this” — is, like I’ve said a million times before, not something people want to hear. People want The Reasons Why. And if there are none that can adequately explain these bounces, well, that’s hockey isn’t it?
Late in the second period the NBC broadcast started talking about the need for Gerard Gallant to do “something.” What that could be, to make Fleury start making saves again, to get someone other than the top line to generate offense (though they hadn’t actually scored in any of these three losses until late in the third period last night, meaning they have half as many goals as Smith-Pelly in that stretch), to ensure Neal doesn’t hit the twoish-inch post instead of about 23 square feet of net, to make not one but two pucks go off a Caps forward’s skate and end up literally anywhere but right on their blades.
You don’t like to think of Future Jack Adams Winner Gerard Gallant as not really having any recourse here. Maybe you swap out someone other than 66-point man David Perron for Tomas Tatar (maybe career-61-point-man Ryan Reaves??? and maybe stop giving Deryk Engelland 22 minutes a night???). But a team with this much success really hasn’t been given a good enough reason to start tinkering now. Especially because, apart from the blowout on the scoreboard — and some dubious special teams play — Vegas deserved far better than it got last night, and now maybe none of that matters.
What good is a moral victory at this time of year?
On the other hand, if you’re Vegas you can’t just pack up the tents and hit the golf course. After all, if your belief in the Hockey Gods got you this far, is it not conceivable that those same deities would also find it extremely funny to have the Caps blow a 3-1 series lead? Nothing would be more Caps-y than that.
Ya gotta believe. Because that’s really all you have left.
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All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.