WASHINGTON — James Neal sat on the bench during the second period and placed his stick in front of Golden Knights assistant equipment manager J.W. Aiken.
Aiken gave the blade a few rubs and then planted a kiss on the white tape, presumably to remove whatever hex afflicted Neal’s lumber.
But the impromptu exorcism only provided a temporary moment of levity on an otherwise difficult night for Neal and his teammates.
Neal’s shot off the post early in the first period proved to be a momentum-turning play Monday as the Knights suffered a 6-2 defeat against Washington in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final at Capital One Arena.
“You score that one,” Neal said, “and it’s a different game.”
The Knights lost their third straight game in the best-of-seven series, a streak that only happened three times during the regular season. The last time they lost three in a row was Feb. 26 through March 2.
And they face a daunting task in an effort to become the first NHL, Major League Baseball, NBA or NFL team to win a championship in its inaugural season – excluding the first year of a league’s existence – since the 1950 Cleveland Browns won the NFL title.
Since 1939, teams that take a 3-1 series lead in the Stanley Cup Final have won 31 consecutive series and are 32-1 (.970) all time. The only team to manage the feat was the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, who rallied from 3-0 deficit to beat Detroit.
Game 5 is at 5 p.m. Thursday at T-Mobile Arena.
“They got the breaks because they’re working hard,” Knights coach Gerard Gallant said. “And you always say when you work hard, you get those breaks. I thought it was a great stride forward for our team coming tonight and working hard. Hopefully that’s the next step for us to get some breaks in the next game for us because we played pretty hard tonight.”
After struggling the past two games against Washington’s 1-1-3 neutral-zone trap, the Knights thought they played their best game of the series Monday.
They swarmed the Capitals in the opening period but fell behind 3-0, which allowed Washington to sit back and protect the lead.
Erik Haula hit the post 1:07 into the game, but it was Neal’s chance at 4:31 that will haunt the Knights.
“You can’t get frustrated because you didn’t score those two goals,” Knights forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare said. “At the end of the day, first period, they created less bounces than us, but they scored more than us.”
With the Knights on a power play, Tomas Tatar drove to the net and fed Haula on the right wing. Haula then sent a cross-ice pass to Neal, who was alone at the left post with Washington goaltender Braden Holtby out of position.
Initially, it appeared that Holtby made a spectacular stick save similar to his stop in the final two minutes of Game 2 against Alex Tuch.
“It was a perfect play,” Neal said. “I thought (Haula) was going to shoot it, and then he held onto it, which was great. Holtby was kind of over there, and then he gave it to me and (Capitals defenseman Matt) Niskanen laid down for a second. So, I just wanted to wait a half a second and he slid out of the net and I just shot it off the post.
“Man, you want those chances. Nine times out of 10 you probably put that in the back of the net. It’s like, I had the composure to wait and then you shoot it and you’re like ‘Uh!’ And the way it hit the post and still came out, I mean, I don’t know. It’s tough. It’s not like anyone made a save. I shot it off the post on the far side.”
Neal went on to score his sixth goal of the playoffs at 5:43 of the third period, and Reilly Smith cut Washington’s lead to 4-2 before Washington tacked on two goals late from Michal Kempny and Brett Connolly.
Washington center Evgeny Kuznetsov finished with four assists. T.J. Oshie had a goal and an assist, while Nicklas Backstrom added three assists.
John Carlson scored on a power play in the second period for the Capitals, who finished 3-for-5 with the man advantage.
“When it mattered we were able to get it done,” Washington coach Barry Trotz said. “And that’s what this team has done over the course of the playoffs. Even when we’re maybe not at our best we’ve been able to get it done, and when it mattered we’ve been able to get it complete.”
The Knights executed their game plan on all fronts to open the first period, chipping pucks deep into the Washington zone and creating havoc with their forecheck. But they had nothing to show for their effort.
The Capitals made the Knights pay for their profligacy, cashing in on a power play with 10:06 left in the first period. Marc-Andre Fleury (17 saves) made the initial stop on Kuznetsov’s shot, but the rebound went to Oshie, and he flipped the puck over Fleury after kicking it onto his stick.
Tom Wilson made it 2-0 when he was left alone in the slot and buried a feed from Kuznetsov with 3:34 remaining in the first.
Devante Smith-Pelly added a backbreaking goal with 20.5 seconds left in the period when he pounced on a loose puck in front after settling a cross-ice pass from Niskanen.
“We’re in a do-or-die situation,” Neal said. “We’ve been great at home, so we’ll go home and play our best game again and find a way to win one game and then we’ll focus on coming back here.”
1. He shoots, he scores. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was the last player off the ice in warmups for the Knights and was loudly booed when he fired a puck the length of the ice into the Capitals’ net. But Fleury finished with 17 saves on 23 shots and hasn’t posted a save percentage better than .900 in the series. He had two games under .900 in the first three rounds.
2. Bird man. Evgeny Kuznetsov didn’t get to do his prancing-bird celebration, but he had four assists for the Capitals. He has 31 points (12 goals, 19 assists) and is the fifth player since 1997 to record at least 30 points in a single postseason.
3. Nose job. Knights defenseman Colin Miller suffered a broken nose during a third-period collision with Washington’s T.J. Oshie prior to Michal Kempny’s goal. “Hopefully everybody saw (the play) and said, ‘Where’s the call there?'” coach Gerard Gallant said.
David Schoen Review-Journal