Before the Golden Knights cleaned out their lockers and conducted their exit interviews Thursday morning, the team held one last meeting about the abrupt end to its season.
General manager George McPhee and team owner Bill Foley gathered the players at City National Arena, and the company line from the front office was to take the high road.
“I had a little speech this morning,” Foley shared. “I said, ‘I’m not necessarily a high-road guy. But I’ll do my very best.’ ”
A range of emotions remained less than two days after the Knights’ never-to-be-forgotten 5-4 overtime loss to the San Jose Sharks in Game 7 of their Western Conference quarterfinal series.
Shock. Disappointment. Frustration. Straight-up anger. It was all there.
But as the reality of a long summer sets in for the Knights, McPhee closed the door on the now-infamous five-minute major penalty to center Cody Eakin, and with it, the Knights’ second season.
“With respect to this organization, there will be no pity-parties here. We’re not feeling sorry for ourselves,” McPhee said. “Stuff happens in games. We’re going to take the rearview mirror out and move forward and put a real good team on the ice next year and go compete again.
“We’re not going to carry around a big suitcase full of yesterdays. That’s not happening.”
After reaching the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season, the Knights fell victim in one of the zaniest postseasons ever.
All four division winners were eliminated in the opening round for the first time in NHL postseason history, while the Western Conference is left with San Jose, two wild cards, Colorado and Dallas, and St. Louis — a team that was last in the league standings on Jan. 2.
“I believe after the San Jose series, had we been successful, we would’ve been odds-on favorites to win the Stanley Cup,” Foley said.
While the Eakin penalty remains the lingering image from the postseason, the harsh truth is the Knights squandered a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
They were unable to close out the Sharks in Game 6 at T-Mobile Arena despite unloading 59 shots on goaltender Martin Jones.
And the penalty-killing unit, which ranked 28th in the NHL after the All-Star break at 75.6 percent, allowed four goals in a span of 4:01 against the Sharks without two of its top members (Eakin and injured Pierre-Edouard Bellemare).
The Knights dropped points early in the season when they stumbled to an 8-11-1 record, but ultimately recovered to close within five points of second-place San Jose after a 5-0 win over Winnipeg on March 21.
But with injured goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury sidelined until April 4, the Knights were unable to reel in the Sharks for home-ice advantage in the first round and played the ill-fated Game 7 in front of a hostile crowd.
“(Fleury) missed some games and we were resting him a little bit, but we wanted to make sure he was 100 percent healthy,” coach Gerard , said. “I don’t think it has anything to do with the home ice trying to chase down San Jose. We were trying to make the playoffs, and that was our battle at that time.”
The Knights now face a busy offseason, with a salary cap to manage and several key free agents.
Center William Karlsson is a restricted free agent with arbitration rights and hopes to sign a long-term contract after following up his breakout season with 24 goals and 56 points.
McPhee also said he was optimistic of getting a deal done.
“We’ve talked a little,” Karlsson said. “But you know, with the playoffs we shut down. Hopefully, we’ll get going soon.”
Veteran defenseman Deryk Engelland, a longtime Las Vegas resident, and center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare are set to become unrestricted free agents and the team faces tough decisions on each.
In addition, forwards Ryan Carpenter and Brandon Pirri will be UFAs and could sign elsewhere July 1 once Russian import Nikita Gusev signs his new contract.
Forward Tomas Nosek (arbitration eligible), defenseman Jimmy Schuldt and backup goaltender Malcolm Subban (arbitration eligible) will be restricted free agents and likely will receive qualifying offers this summer.
“It was a tough one for us. But this is a good team. It’s built for the long run,” McPhee said. “We’ve got some real good depth in young players, and we liked the way this team competed. These guys played their guts out.
“I think it’s a team people can be proud of. They play hard. They play honest. They don’t embellish. They don’t cheat. They play the game right, and they play hard.”
Golden Knights free agents
Unrestricted (4): Ryan Carpenter, Deryk Engelland, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Brandon Pirri
Restricted (5): Nikita Gusev, William Karlsson, Tomas Nosek, Jimmy Schuldt (not arbitration eligible), Malcolm Subban