Before Game 5 of the Western Conference Final, Paul Stastny admitted he’s been on teams that were down 3-1 in a series to a superior opponent and knew their fate was sealed.
But that wasn’t the case for the Golden Knights, which makes their exit from the NHL’s postseason bubble in Edmonton, Alberta, all the more difficult to comprehend.
The Knights were favored in the series after splitting the first two games with the Dallas Stars, but lost three straight one-goal games and saw their season end in overtime for the second year in a row.
It was a disappointing finish to an eventful season that included a January coaching change from Gerard Gallant to Pete DeBoer, followed by two significant moves before the trade deadline in February.
The Knights went on to win the Pacific Division title before the season was paused because of the coronavirus pandemic. Once play resumed, they went undefeated in the round robin to earn the top seed and had a clear path to the Stanley Cup Final.
But the Knights were unable to close the deal and could see several roster changes this offseason as a result of falling short of expectations.
“We all feel like this is a wasted opportunity,” forward Reilly Smith said. “We had everyone, including our taxi squad, be ready for this for two months prior, three months prior, and put everything into it. For our organization, we wanted a Stanley Cup. We didn’t get it, so we’re pretty upset.”
Where did it all go wrong for the Knights? Here are four reasons they are headed home:
1. Offense dries up
To borrow a phrase from DeBoer, this has been analyzed to death already, but the numbers can’t be ignored.
During their first 12 postseason games, the Knights scored four or more goals eight times and averaged 3.75 goals per game.
But their five leading scorers from the regular season went into a scoring slump after Game 4 of the conference semifinals against Vancouver and couldn’t break out against Dallas’ bend-but-don’t-break defense.
Meanwhile, the Stars got timely goals from captain Jamie Benn and Knights nemesis Joe Pavelski, along with OT winners from Alexander Radulov and Denis Gurianov.
“We’ve got to learn some things from this about what works in the playoffs and how you score in the playoffs,” DeBoer said. “I’m still getting used to and getting to know the group. But the goal of this team is to win a Stanley Cup, and they’re right in that window.”
2. Dealing with distractions
The Knights turned up the volume on the outside noise without any help from the media and couldn’t tune it out.
The goaltending competition came to a head before the conference semifinals when Marc-Andre Fleury’s agent intimated on Twitter that his client had been stabbed in the back by DeBoer. Fleury played in two of the final 12 games after the tweet was deleted.
Forward Jonathan Marchessault got fed up with trolls on Instagram and fired off a few vulgar replies after a loss. He didn’t score after issuing a public apology, took at least two bad penalties and went the final 11 games without a goal.
Meanwhile, Lehner denied before Game 4 against Dallas that he and the Knights had a contract extension sitting in a drawer waiting to be signed.
“We’re here in the conference final and people are saying things they don’t know,” Lehner said. “It’s adding on to this thing that’s been going on here, you know?”
3. Missing swagger
Without fans in attendance at Rogers Place, it was easier to hear players talking on the ice and the bench. And the Knights earned a reputation as the schoolyard bully in the Western Conference bubble.
When the scoreboard was in their favor, the Knights pushed around the Chicago Blackhawks, taunted Vancouver’s Elias Pettersson and badgered referees to call penalties. Ryan Reaves clucked like a chicken, while his sidekick Marchessault talked trash in French and English.
But the Knights clammed up after getting punched in the mouth by Dallas during the first period of Game 1 and stopped playing with the brashness they showed early in the postseason.
They never got back that bravado, as defenseman Nate Schmidt called it.
4. Pressure adds up
When the Knights reached the Stanley Cup Final, they were an expansion team that was picked by most to miss the playoffs.
Last season, they were the No. 3 seed from the Pacific Division and picked by some to make another deep run.
This postseason presented a different kind of pressure. The Knights won their first six games to open the playoffs, but the tougher it got to score goals, the tighter they gripped their sticks.
Too often they tried to make the perfect play against Canucks rookie goalie Thatcher Demko or Dallas’ Anton Khudobin. With the exception of Game 2 against Dallas, the Knights looked anxious trying to protect a lead rather than confident.
After Game 5, DeBoer noted the Knights must improve at finding ways to get out of a slump.
“Expectations are a big thing,” Marchessault said. “The first year, we didn’t have any expectations, so every game was a surprise. But this year, we have expectations. It’s a tough thing in hockey sometimes.”
* Sept. 22 — Stanley Cup Final begins
Oct. 6, 7 — NHL draft
Oct. 9 — Free agency begins
* Nov. 17 — Opening of training camps for 2020-21 season
* Dec. 1 — Beginning of 2020-21 regular season
* Dec. 4 — Beginning of 2020-21 American Hockey League regular season
* Subject to change