AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Saturday, June 2, 2018 | 10:18 p.m.
WASHINGTON — For some, this could be the opportunity to doubt the Vegas Golden Knights.
They have lost consecutive games in the Stanley Cup Final to the Capitals, who grabbed a 2-1 series advantage with a 3-1 victory on Saturday in Game 3. Washington, which has completely taken Vegas out of its fast-paced style of play, is now a minus-210 betting favorite to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup.
But as the first-year Golden Knights have shown all season, they play their best when outsiders count them out. There is still plenty of hockey left, players say.
“It’s been said all year,” forward James Neal said. “We know what we have in this room and we stick together. We got each other, we’ll pick each other up focus on the next one. We’ll have our best game of the year and tie it up.”
The feeling after Saturday’s game was eerily similar to two weeks ago in Winnipeg. The Jets pounded Vegas 4-2 in the opening game of the Western Conference Finals and the general consensus was the Golden Knights had finally met their match.
That was far from the case, as Vegas won the next four games in impressive fashion to become the first expansion team to reach the finals.
When Neal says the team will have its best game of the year, it’s not just wishful thinking. He truly believes it, and to this point, there isn’t a reason not to. After Vegas was blown out in Winnipeg, Jonathan Marchessault said Game 2 was a must-win, and that they would show what type of team they are.
He went out and scored two goals and the Golden Knights dismantled Winnipeg in front of its home crowd.
The Golden Knights will have to do the same thing on Monday in Game 4 against Washington if they want to even the Stanley Cup Finals and steal back home ice advantage as the series shifts back to Las Vegas.
“We have what it takes,” Vegas’ Cody Eakin said. “It’s going to come from within the locker room and within each other. We are still a confident group. It’s one game and we are going to look to be a little better.”
The Capitals have improved in each game this series while the Golden Knights have remained stagnant, and that has been the difference. The Caps’ Alex Ovechkin has played like the superstar he is, and delivered for his team when they needed it most while Vegas’ stars have been mostly a non-factor.
“We’re still underdogs against them,” Vegas; David Perron said. “They’re a great team over there. Now the pressure is on them to keep going. We’re going to find a way to answer. We’re going to talk about it. It’s tough tonight. Hurts a lot. But we gotta find a way to turn the page and it’ll be better.”
It’s something coach Gerard Gallant has preached all season.
“You forget about tonight’s game and get ready for the next one,” Gallant said. “They were the better team, they deserved to win and we move on.”
Washington’s forecheck has given the Golden Knights major problems, forcing turnovers, such as the one that Shea Theodore coughed up in the third period that led to the game-icing goal by Devante Smith-Pelly.
“Once we get it we have to have some poise with the puck, make the right play and make it easier on each other,” Neal said. “Once we make a play we are rushing the next one, and vice versa. We have to have some poise, settle down a little bit and get back to what has made us successful.”
Vegas has plenty of room for improvement. It’s gotten next to nothing from the best line in hockey (Marchessault, Reilly Smith and William Karlsson) and Marc-Andre Fleury appears to be rounding back into his superstar form after a slow start to the series.
It’s commonly said that the Stanley Cup is the toughest trophy to win in all of sports. It takes 16 wins over the stretch of two months. To this point Vegas has breezed through the playoffs, making it look almost too easy at times.
But that’s not the case with this series.
“Nothing’s going to be given, we have to work for everything we get,” Neal said. “It’s so hard to win. It’s so hard to get to this position. It’s so hard to do anything. We recognize that. It’s going to be a long series and we knew that right from the get go.”