Wednesday, May 30, 2018 | 8:40 p.m.
The fan experience of the NHL Playoffs is supposed to resemble the world’s most frightening haunted house, with long stretches of shriek-inducing horror followed by only brief moments of respite.
Vegas Golden Knights fans have lived a charmed existence by avoiding the hockey equivalent of a crazed masked man chasing them through hallways in the team’s inaugural (post)season. They’ve enjoyed something more akin to a vacation at an all-inclusive tropical resort as the Golden Knights went 13-3 through the Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final to shield fans from nearly any care in the hockey world.
That ended with a 3-2 loss to the Washington Capitals in Game 2 Wednesday night at T-Mobile Arena to even the Stanley Cup Final at 1-1. It’s time to jump out of the hammock and prepare for a hacksaw.
This series is going to produce heart-pounding scares around every corner.
Let’s start the startling with this: Game 2 winners have gone on to hoist the cup 74 percent of the time since the NHL expanded the championship series to a best–of-seven.
That doesn’t mean Washington will walk to its franchise’s first title, but it’s easy to envision the Capitals having many of the same advantages of its forbearers.
They appeared to figure out the Golden Knights on Wednesday. Vegas’ only other playoff loss at home came in the controversial 3-2 double-overtime setback in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinal series against San Jose.
The Golden Knights’ other pair of postseason defeats weren’t pretty — a 4-2 defeat in Winnipeg in Game 1 of the Western Conference final and a 4-0 blowout at San Jose in Game 4 — but some solace was attached to each. Vegas improved as the game progressed against Winnipeg, a team that seemed spurred by an early wave of emotion stemming from the city’s first-ever conference final appearance.
Even the San Jose blowout felt less alarming, with the promise of Vegas coming home after splitting the pair of road games. The pressure is firmly on the Golden Knights now, however, with the Stanley Cup Final shifting to Washington for Game 3 on Saturday and Game 4 on Monday.
They won’t stand much of a chance if they play like they did for most of Wednesday’s midgame.
And all of this on a night when Vegas had an opportunity to take a commanding lead and become the sixth team in NHL history to win 14 of the first 17 games in a single postseason.
It’s hard to think that was the same Golden Knights team as the one that stumbled in so many areas for a 20-minute stretch between the first and second periods in Game 2. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury couldn’t make up for shortcomings elsewhere as he has so often in the postseason, with all three Washington goals coming during the span.
Fleury can’t be blamed for Alexander Ovechkin blasting his first goal of the series on a second-period power play, but he could have made a better play on the other two scores. That includes a weak Brooks Orpik wrister, which in fairness deflected off a player and then the post, that broke a personal 220-game goal-less drought.
Fleury, however, was not the primary problem.
He made two diving saves to atone for defensive lapses that were all too frequent. Vegas’ offense joined in on the uncharacteristic showing.
Although the Golden Knights held a shots-on-goal edge through two periods, any heat map or shot chart revealed the Capitals as the team getting the more quality opportunities.
That’s enough with the doom and gloom, though. Here’s a place to take a breath: Only once in the last 32 years has the lower-seeded team gone on to win the Stanley Cup Final when the series is tied 1-1.
Vegas did demonstrate some of its comeback mentality when Shea Theodore converted a power-play right before the second intermission to make the score 3-2.
The Golden Knights continued to attack in the third period — other than disastrously underperforming with more than a minute of 5-on-3 play — but Capitals goalie Braden Holtby made several big saves.
Vegas has answered adversity spectacularly all season. There’s no reason to doubt the Golden Knights can do it again. There’s no reason to think they can’t win the series.
Game 2 just ensured the path to victory won’t be a breeze this time; it’s looking a lot more menacing.