Erik Haula skated away from his teammates and cut a solitary figure at T-Mobile Arena as he rested on one knee.
The Golden Knights forward stared straight ahead, forcing himself to watch the celebration at the opposite end of the rink.
“The whole season kind of flashes by your eyes,” he said. “It’s tough.”
After smashing records and making an unexpected run to the Stanley Cup Final, the Knights’ inaugural season ended in cruel fashion Thursday night at the hands of the Washington Capitals.
Devante Smith-Pelly and Lars Eller scored 2:31 apart in the third period as the Capitals rallied for a 4-3 victory over the stunned and disappointed Knights.
Washington won the best-of-seven series 4-1 and captured the first championship in franchise history after 43 seasons of disappointment.
“I think we look back on this after we get some time to think about it, it’s obviously hard to talk about right now,” Knights forward James Neal said. “It’s pretty special, but just a little bit short. But proud of the guys.”
The Knights were picked by many to struggle but won the Pacific Division title and became the first expansion team to reach the Stanley Cup Final in its inaugural season since the 1967-68 Blues.
After rolling through Los Angeles, San Jose and Winnipeg, then winning Game 1 against the Capitals, the Knights lost four straight and were outscored 16-8 in that span.
It was their first four-game losing streak of the season.
“They played better than us on both sides of the puck. That’s the bottom line,” Haula said. “I guess they deserved to win. It’s tough to admit.”
Coach Gerard Gallant made several lineup changes prior to Game 5 in an effort to stave off elimination, and the Knights led 3-2 entering the third period after goals by former Capitals defenseman Nate Schmidt and forwards David Perron and Reilly Smith.
But the Knights, who were 10-0 in the playoffs when leading after two periods, were unable to hold on to force a Game 6 in Washington.
Smith-Pelly scored for the third straight game to tie the game at 3 with 10:08 remaining in the third period. Brooks Orpik’s shot from the point was deflected, but Smith-Pelly swooped in and kicked the loose puck onto his stick before sliding it past Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
Eller added the go-ahead goal with 7:37 left, taking advantage of a turnover down low by Knights defenseman Luca Sbisa. Fleury made the initial stop on Brett Connolly’s drive, but the rebound squirted free and Eller poked it in for his seventh of the postseason.
“I thought we had a great start to the third,” Neal said. “Just a couple plays we didn’t get the puck out on the blue line there. And when that happens, they found a puck in front of the net and banged it in. It’s hard, but that’s hockey. You’ve got to get pucks out when you have a chance. When you don’t, it comes back to bite you.”
Washington’s Alex Ovechkin scored in the second period and was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the MVP of the postseason. Jakub Vrana opened the scoring in the second period for the Capitals.
The Capitals led the NHL in victories over the past four seasons with nothing to show for it, but finally broke through in their first finals appearance since 1998.
Washington closed out all four series on the road and joins the 1991 Pittsburgh Penguins as the only teams to win the Stanley Cup after trailing in all four series.
“It means everything,” Ovechkin said. “We have been waiting a long, long time, since Day One. … It was a tough time, but we fight through it and we get results.”
The Knights finally caught a few breaks in an action-filled second period, rallying from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits.
After Ovechkin put the Capitals ahead with a power-play goal midway through the period, Perron evened the score at 2, as he was credited with his first goal of the postseason with 7:04 left in the second.
Perron was battling Washington defender Christian Djoos in front, and Tomas Tatar’s redirection went off Perron’s body before Djoos dumped him into the Capitals’ net.
Washington challenged for goaltender interference, but the NHL Situation Room ruled that “Djoos caused Perron to contact (Washington goaltender Braden) Holtby before the puck crossed the goal line.”
“I thought they came out pretty hard and we pushed back right away,” Perron said. “We had a good second period.”
Smith put the Knights up 3-2 with a power-play goal with 28.2 seconds remaining in the second when Alex Tuch hopped on a loose puck in front and sent a no-look pass to Smith for the tap-in.
Neither team scored in a tight-checking first period, as the Knights were unable to make life difficult for Holtby.
The Capitals held a 9-7 advantage in shots on goal, and every shot the Knights fired on the Washington net came from distance.
Washington has the best scoring opportunity of the opening period when Ovechkin hit the post on a power play with 7:50 remaining after Colin Miller went off for interference.
“It’s the funnest time of my life and to come up short is tough,” Haula said. “It’s going to take a while to get over it, but I guess you’ve just got to go back to work and get back at it.
“Nobody believed in us. I don’t think there’s a single person who’s going to say that they did, except for the people who are here. It’s awesome. It’s a fun group of guys. It’s just tough to let it go.”
1. Friendly rivals? Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and longtime rival Alex Ovechkin exchanged love taps in pregame warmups. The Capitals star tapped Fleury on his pad, and Fleury appeared to chase after Ovechkin. Fleury then gave Ovechkin a pretty good whack with the paddle of his stick the next time they crossed paths.
2. Falling behind. The Golden Knights failed to score the opening goal for the first time in 10 home games this postseason (7-2). Only three teams have scored first in 10 home games in a playoff year: the Boston Bruins (1988), New York Rangers (1994) and Chicago Blackhawks (2013).
3. Capital punishment. Washington went 1-for-4 on the power play and finished the playoffs 22-for-75 (29.3 percent) with the man advantage. Among teams with at least 60 opportunities, only three have converted at a higher rate during a single playoff year since 1977-78: the 1981 and 1982 New York Islanders and the 1994 Toronto Maple Leafs.
David Schoen Review-Journal