Thursday, June 7, 2018 | 8:50 p.m.
Alex Tuch skated away from the melee-inflicted dog pile that followed a goal he orchestrated and toward the penalty box nodding his head.
The message was as sharp as the blade on the stick he left behind: Tuch’s Golden Knights weren’t intimidated by the Capitals in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final. Despite a series that had turned against them in so many ways, they would concede nothing.
Vegas played with that kind of an edge throughout Thursday night’s elimination game, but unfortunately for Tuch and his teammates, it wasn’t enough. Washington was able to do what its franchise had failed to do so often throughout its 44-year history and win a closeout game.
Capitals 4, Golden Knights 3.
The nation’s capital finally has the championship it’s excruciatingly sought for nearly 30 years. One of the greatest hockey players in the world, Alexander Ovechkin, finally has the crown he’s chased for what feels like just as long.
Even the thousands of Golden Knights fans out of the 18,529 in attendance must have felt a trace of happiness for Ovechkin as he paraded the cup around the T-Mobile Arena ice. Not that the appreciation came anywhere close to overpowering the predominant feeling of Vegas fans — pain.
The chances for major professional sports titles simply don’t come around very often. Just ask Washington.
Inaugural season or not, there’s no soothing the sting of defeat after coming this close. Don’t let anyone argue otherwise.
The city hasn’t had a team long enough to know true torment? Try being blackballed from every attempt to lure any major professional sport for decades because of an archaic fallacy on the nature of the gaming industry.
But if there’s any solace to be found for the suddenly hockey-crazed valley in the immediate aftermath of this loss, it should come in the way the Golden Knights fought. The Game 5 loss was far from the no-show seen so often from mentally broken teams in closeout games against an opponent that’s dominated the series.
The Golden Knights showed plenty of flashes of why they’ve become so beloved.
For more than 30 minutes starting from the time Tuch assisted on a Reilly Smith power-play goal to make the score Vegas 3-2, it looked like the Golden Knights would extend the greatest expansion season in sports history.
They had just scored two goals in seven minutes, the first being what felt like the umpteenth time of the playoffs that they answered an opponent’s score immediately. Less than three minutes after eventual Conn Smythe winner Ovechkin scored his 15th playoff goal and third of the Stanley Cup on a power play, David Perron deflected a Tomas Tatar shot in to tie the game at 2-2.
Unlike their Game 3 loss, the Golden Knights weren’t struggling to find solid offensive chances. Unlike their Game 4 loss, Fleury hadn’t ever seem flustered.
He sprawled out on multiple occasions in the first two periods to make stops reminiscent of those that helped deliver him to the Stanley Cup Final with the best playoff save percentage (.947) in history among goalies with at least 15 games.
Alas, Fleury could neither counteract shoddy defense on a tying-goal from Devante Smith-Pelly with 10 minutes remaining nor prevent Lars Eller from getting behind him and poking in a rebound on the game-winner three minutes later.
But think of where Fleury, the Golden Knights’ consummate leader, has brought them. It was almost exactly a year ago that he walked across a stage in the same arena as an expansion draft pick.
No one in the building thought he’d have the chance to give up a Stanley Cup-winning goal in virtually the same spot.
“The best first year any team has ever had,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman reminded the crowd before awarding the Capitals the cup and turning boos into cheers.
A lot of that will always be attributed to Fleury, who again appeared to instill in the Golden Knights a winning attitude before the game that ended their season. In pregame warmups, Ovechkin playfully nicked Fleury’s stick as he stretched.
Problem was, Fleury wasn’t in a playful mood. He strode alongside Ovechkin down the center of the ice, and seemed to impart some choice words.
Later, Fleury returned the favor and tapped Ovechkin’s shin pad. He had no intention of succumbing on Thursday night. The Golden Knights had no intention of succumbing.
The fight they showed won’t cure the hurt, but the Golden Knights at least went out in a similar fashion to the way they spent the season — making Vegas proud.