How did this happen? Vegas grapples with 5-game series loss

Golden Knights

EDMONTON, Alberta (AP) — Peter DeBoer didn’t prepare a speech to give his Vegas Golden Knights in the event they lost Game 5 of the Western Conference final to end their run in the NHL bubble, because he didn’t think they’d lose.

After they did, in stinging fashion blowing a two-goal lead and giving up a power-play goal in overtime, DeBoer and the Golden Knights were left to grapple with the question: How could this happen? Vegas controlled the play for much of the series, outshot the Dallas Stars 166-118 and looked like the better team, yet it lost in five games to bow out of the playoffs.

“I felt even the games we lost here in the bubble I felt we could win — we could’ve won,” DeBoer said. “We were right there. It’s a very slim margin. We just couldn’t get a timely goal in order to put us in the position to be on the right side of that ledger.”

Vegas scored one fewer goal than Dallas, yet the Stars are the ones going to the Stanley Cup Final. By all conventional wisdom, the Golden Knights should probably be leading a series that’s ongoing, but that’s hockey.

“It was a tight series,” forward Reilly Smith said. “I think our team probably outplayed them for 90% of it, but they scored timely goals.”

It’s hard to even find a scapegoat, which is usually not the case when a team loses four games to one in a series. Zach Whitecloud sent the puck over the glass for a delay-of-game penalty that paved the way for Denis Gurianov’s OT goal, but teammates said Game 5 wasn’t on the young defenseman, whose play helped the Golden Knights get this far.

Goaltender Robin Lehner wasn’t the problem, either, though he conceded, “You wish you come up with a save there” on Dallas’ tying and series-winning goals. After DeBoer made him his starter over face of the franchise Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas faces a big question of what to do: Probably extend Lehner and go from there.

Those are questions for the weeks ahead. The past two months were full of the Golden Knights winning before it fell apart.

Vegas looked like a buzz-saw, winning 10 of its first 12 postseason games. Smith called it “probably the best, most skilled team” he has been on, and for almost half the playoffs it looked like that and more.

Then, Vancouver goaltender Jacob Markstrom got hurt, and rookie Thatcher Demko came in and stopped 123 of 125 shots. The Golden Knights survived by winning Game 7 that round, but some damage was done to their psyche.

“There’s no doubt that the last couple games of the Vancouver series against Demko probably rattled our confidence a little bit,” DeBoer said.

Then Stars journeyman goalie Anton Khudobin did his best Demko impression and his teammates forced Vegas to take shots — a lot of them — from mostly outside. Dallas coach Rick Bowess said, “We’ll give them that,” while conceding this wasn’t really a blowout series by any means.

“Vegas did a great job,” Bowness said. “That franchise had a great year, and it’s a great franchise. They put up more of a fight than the 4-1 will tell you, so congratulations to them.”

There was little solace in that for Vegas, which was a legitimate title contender for the third consecutive season. The organization has only been around for three seasons but has already moved quickly from expansion darling to NHL powerhouse.

With that prestige also comes higher expectations, so there wasn’t a lot of optimism about getting this far or the potential long playoff runs ahead.

“Definitely feel defeated,” Smith said. ”It’s positive looking into the future, but that’s not what we’re doing right now. We all feel like this is a wasted opportunity.”

DeBoer, who took over when Gerard Gallant was fired in January, fell just short of taking a third different team to the final. He said the Golden Knights are “right in that window” to win in the years ahead, if they can put into practice what a brutal loss like this teaches players and coaches.

“We’ve got to learn some things from this about what works in the playoffs and how you score in the playoffs,” DeBoer said. “Another learning lesson for our guys at this time of year: fighting through, persevering, finding a way to get yourself out of a slump, getting your confidence back quicker, all those things. And I’m sure on coaching, too. What can I do differently? There’s things I’m sure that I could’ve done differently that I’ve got to look at.”

This thread will be updated throughout the game

FIRST PERIOD: Robin Lehner in net for Knights. Mark Stone in the lineup tonight after foot injury in game 4.

Knights Chandler Stephenson (3) scores on a breakaway, assists to Shea Theodore (12) and Alex Tuch (4). KNIGHTS 1, STARS 0.

END OF FIRST PERIOD: KNIGHTS 1, STARS 0. Knights with 13 shots on goal, Stars with 9.

SECOND PERIOD: Scoreless second period. KNIGHTS 1, STARS 0. Knights with 25 shots on goal, Stars with 14.

THIRD PERIOD: Reilly Smith (5) scores early in the period. Paul Stastny (6) with the assist. KNIGHTS 2, STARS 0.

Jamie Benn (8) scores for Dallas. Redulov (6), Lindell (5) assists. KNIGHTS 2, STARS 1, 9 minutes left in the period.

J. Kiviranta (4) scores late in period. KNIGHTS 2, STARS 2, Going to OVERTIME. Knights lead shots on goal 35-25.

D Gurianov (9) scores for Dallas Stars early in OT on the power play. Questionable delay of game call on rookie Zach Whitecloud. STARS WIN 3-2 over KNIGHTS. Season ends for Vegas Golden Knights.

D Gurianov (9) scores for Dallas

Vegas Golden Knights (39-24-8, first in the Pacific Division during the regular season) vs. Dallas Stars (37-24-8, third in the Central Division during the regular season).

Edmonton, Alberta; Monday, 5 p.m. PDT

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS: Dallas leads series 3-1

BOTTOM LINE: The Dallas Stars look to clinch the Western Conference finals over the Vegas Golden Knights in game five. The teams meet Monday for the seventh time this season. The Stars won the last matchup 2-1.

The Golden Knights are 23-14-3 in conference play. Vegas has scored 224 goals and is fourth in the Western Conference averaging 3.2 goals per game. Max Pacioretty leads the team with 32.

The Stars are 22-12-6 in conference matchups. Dallas has surrendered 44 power-play goals, killing 79.7% of opponent opportunities.

WATCH MONDAY’S PRESS CONFERENCE:

TOP PERFORMERS: Chandler Stephenson leads the Golden Knights with a plus-19 in 41 games this season. Shea Theodore has three goals and six assists over the last 10 games for Vegas.

Tyler Seguin leads the Stars with 33 total assists and has 50 points. Jamie Benn has five goals and five assists over the last 10 games for Dallas.

DURING THE PLAYOFFS: Golden Knights: Averaging 2.9 goals, 4.9 assists, 3.4 penalties and 7.7 penalty minutes while giving up 2.2 goals per game with a .911 save percentage.

Stars: Averaging 3.0 goals, 5.1 assists, 4.6 penalties and 10.8 penalty minutes while giving up 3.1 goals per game with a .906 save percentage.

INJURIES: Golden Knights: None listed.

Stars: Taylor Fedun: out (undisclosed), Radek Faksa: out (undisclosed), Stephen Johns: out (undisclosed), Ben Bishop: out (undisclosed).

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