Thursday, April 25, 2019 | 2 a.m.
A ludicrous narrative that followed the Golden Knights during last year’s run to the Stanley Cup Final suggested that Las Vegas was undeserving of the success because of its nascent state as a professional sports market. Some hockey fans struggled to accept that past disappointment wasn’t a prerequisite to earning championship banners. Well, forget that criticism forever.
So much for a shortage of suffering; heartbreak is here. Sports sadists should be more than sufficiently sated after the Golden Knights’ devastating first-round playoff series loss to the San Jose Sharks in seven games to end their second season.
“Last year we were in the Stanley Cup Final and it was tough to lose,” Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said after a 5-4 Game 7 overtime loss in San Jose. “Tonight was tougher.”
It was tougher because the lasting legacy of, and primary reason for, the loss was something out of the Golden Knights’ control—a five-minute major penalty and game misconduct on Cody Eakin that shouldn’t have doomed Vegas to becoming only the second team in NHL history to surrender a three-goal third-period lead and lose a Game 7.
The Golden Knights’ win probability was nearly 99 percent, according to moneypuck.com, midway through the third period before Sharks star Joe Pavelski took a scary spill out of a post-faceoff collision with Eakin that led the officials to overreact. With the man advantage, San Jose went on to score goals in what will go down as the most painful five minutes in Las Vegas sports history.
“That call changed the whole outcome, changed the whole future of us, the outcome of the year,” Vegas forward Jonathan Marchessault said. “It’s a joke. I would be embarrassed if I was them.”
Replay revealed Eakin’s hit on Pavelski to be a classic cross-check, a textbook 2-minute minor penalty that would have expired after one goal. Immediately, the call drew parallels to the last highly controversial officiating decision in an elimination game.
The Los Angeles Rams committed a blatant late-game pass interference that went uncalled in January’s NFC Championship Game, helping them defeat the New Orleans Saints in overtime. The NFL has since announced that pass interference will be a reviewable play for the first time next season.
The NHL, which already reviews minor offenses like offsides and high-sticking, should follow suit and add major penalties to its list of plays that can undergo extra video scrutiny. Vegas has already started advocating for such a change.
Like the Saints, however, the Golden Knights had their opportunities to win regardless. In a way, they perished appropriately by being outplayed by the Sharks in the final 30 minutes of Game 7 after dominating the early-going.
Inconsistency plagued Vegas all year. San Jose would have likely never gotten the major-penalty designation if it wasn’t playing on home ice, and it was playing on home ice because Vegas had too many dry spells during the regular season.
The Golden Knights got off to a rough start by winning only eight of their first 20 games while top defenseman Nate Schmidt served a suspension for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. They surged back into the thick of the playoff race around the new year with two separate winning streaks of at least five games before the tide turned again.
Vegas was briefly in danger of falling out of the postseason picture before a trade-deadline deal brought in Ottawa winger Mark Stone, who immediately became the team’s best player and main hope for another deep run. The Golden Knights appeared destined for just that after taking a commanding 3-1 series lead over the Sharks, an advantage only 28 teams in NHL history had previously squandered.
But they committed a few costly defensive mistakes on a night when goalie Marc-André Fleury wasn’t at his sharpest in a 5-2 Game 5 loss in San Jose. Then in a 2-1 double-overtime Game 6 defeat, Vegas misfired on a wide-open net at least four times on a night when it posted 59 shots on goal.
This season was never as smooth as the fabled expansion campaign, so it stood to reason the rockiness would rear its head at some point in the playoffs. It was just difficult to see it coming when it did, difficult to see it coming in the manner it did.
The good news is, Vegas sits well-positioned to stay among the group of top Stanley Cup contenders for the next few years. The bad news is, the team might look quite a bit different.
Uncertainty hovers around a number of fan favorites from the past two years heading into the offseason, including but not limited to free agents William Karlsson, Deryk Engelland and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare.
Some players will be back, others won’t. This group will always hold a special place in Las Vegas sports lore, mostly for the joy it provided over the past two years, but now also the hurt.
No one can regard the Golden Knights as having existed as an exclusively charmed franchise anymore.
This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.