In the hallway leading to the Golden Knights’ dressing room, the gear was packed in bags and the sticks were bundled up, ready to be shipped out.
A little more than an hour later, in front of the assembled media on the opposite end of City National Arena, general manager George McPhee closed the book on an unprecedented first season.
“Thank you very much, everybody,” he said. “Fantastic year, thank you.”
The Knights spent Friday clearing out their lockers, the epilogue to their unexpected run to the Stanley Cup Final that ended short of the ultimate prize.
Washington rallied for a 4-3 victory over the Knights in Game 5 on Thursday at T-Mobile Arena to claim its first championship in franchise history. The Capitals, led by playoff MVP Alex Ovechkin, won four straight in the best-of-seven series after dropping Game 1.
“They did a great job slowing us down,” Knights forward James Neal said. “They’re a little bit of a veteran team. That team’s been through a lot. They’ve lost, and they’ve lost in different ways. … You get a lot of motivation out of that.
“I know a few guys in that locker room, and they wanted to win bad. I’m not taking anything away from us, but they just had that little edge over us in the end, and that’s the difference between winning and losing.”
The Knights won the Pacific Division in their first season and became the first expansion team to reach the Stanley Cup Final since the 1967-68 Blues. But they were unable to overcome the deep and talented Capitals in the best-of-seven series.
Ovechkin cemented his Hall of Fame resume with three goals in the series, including two on the power play from his favored spot in the left faceoff circle. Center Evgeny Kuznetsov finished as the top scorer in the playoffs with 32 points.
“Didn’t have an answer for him,” said McPhee, who drafted Kuznetsov during his tenure as Capitals GM. “He’s like a young (Sergei) Fedorov out there. He was outstanding.”
Washington also received contributions from fourth-line winger Devante Smith-Pelly (three goals in five games) and third-line center Lars Eller, who had three points in the Game 2 victory and scored the Cup-winning goal with 7:37 left in the third period.
The Knights, who couldn’t hold a 3-2 lead in Game 5, were 10-0 when leading after two periods prior to Thursday’s loss.
“I felt like it was our best game as a team, the last game, and we have to find a way to win and we didn’t,” forward David Perron said. “We felt confident that if we bring it back there — they have their whole families here in Vegas, put them back on a plane, bring the disappointment back with them a little bit, and go from there, I think we had a chance there.”
The Knights scored eight goals in four games following a 6-4 victory in Game 1, and the series seemingly turned in the Capitals’ favor on two plays.
Neal, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent, hit the post with an open net in the first period of the Game 4 loss. That proved to be a momentum-turning moment in a 6-2 loss that dropped the Knights into a 3-1 series hole.
And Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby made a game-saving diving stop in the final two minutes of Game 2 to deny Alex Tuch of the tying goal. The victory allowed the Capitals to steal home-ice advantage in the series.
The play has been immortalized in Washington as “The Save.”
Holtby finished the series with a 2.62 goals-against average and .916 save percentage and outplayed Knights counterpart Marc-Andre Fleury (4.09 GAA, .853 SP).
Fleury was looking to become the 11th goaltender to win the Stanley Cup at least four times, and the seventh player in league history to win with different teams in consecutive seasons.
“Would the outcome be different? Maybe,” Tuch said. “You can’t really look at that too much. It happens. It was a great save and I said it was a great save to Holtby after the series. He said it was all luck, but it was a phenomenal save, obviously.”
McPhee, who nearly choked up on multiple occasions during his news conference, thought the layoff prior to the start of the series hurt the Knights.
Entering the Stanley Cup Final, the Knights played five games in 20 days (May 7 to 27).
“I didn’t think we were as sharp. We weren’t executing as well as we could have,” McPhee said. “We didn’t have a lot of luck, but excuses and all that stuff, it’s for losers. I just think Washington was really good. Their team was ready.”