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Knights rue missed opportunity as season ends: ‘We were right there’

Frustration. Disappointment. Whatever you call it, the Golden Knights are feeling it.

They think they should be in Denver preparing for a second-round series against the Colorado Avalanche.

A longer offseason than last is underway instead. The Knights, after their hopes of winning a second straight Stanley Cup ended Sunday in a Game 7 loss to the Dallas Stars, were still coming to grips with that at City National Arena on Tuesday.

“We definitely felt we had a team that could win another championship,” captain Mark Stone said. “I believe that we will have a team that can win another championship going forward, as well.”

Stone acknowledged the Knights made things difficult on themselves.

They earned the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, which led to a first-round matchup with top-seeded Dallas. The Knights finished first in their conference a season ago and had home-ice advantage in every series.

They still felt this year’s roster was better.

The Knights added defenseman Noah Hanifin, center Tomas Hertl and right wing Anthony Mantha at the trade deadline after bringing back almost all of their Cup-clinching lineup.

They started strong this postseason by winning the first two games in Dallas. The Stars battled back to win four of the next five and advance.

“We were right there,” Stone said. “We put ourselves in a good spot to go on another run, but came up short.”

The Knights learned firsthand how difficult it is to repeat.

The 2016-17 Pittsburgh Penguins and the 2020-21 Tampa Bay Lightning are the only two teams that have gone back-to-back since the NHL introduced its salary cap in 2005.

“It’s hard,” defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. “I think it, in a sense, pushes you to be better because you’re going to get the best from every single team the next season, which we did this year.”

Adversity aplenty

Injuries were a major roadblock in the Knights’ title defense.

Stone didn’t play for two months with a lacerated spleen. Pietrangelo missed time down the stretch with an illness and an appendectomy.

Center Jack Eichel missed 19 games after knee surgery and defenseman Shea Theodore was out three months following an upper-body surgery.

Left wing William Carrier (upper-body) and defenseman Zach Whitecloud (upper-body) also had procedures that caused them to miss time. Hertl underwent left knee surgery before being traded to the Knights.

The team led the NHL with 476 man games lost.

“We had a lot of adversity throughout this run,” Eichel said.

It’s been an unfortunate theme for the Knights in recent years.

Stone has missed 110 games the last three seasons thanks to his spleen injury and two back surgeries. Theodore has missed 62 games the last two years and Eichel 34.

“One of my goals this year was to come in and play all 82 games, but that didn’t happen, unfortunately,” Eichel said. “It’s never ideal to have a midseason surgery.”

Stone said he’s optimistic his long-term injuries are behind him. He was pleased with how his back felt throughout the season. He did say the night he spent at the hospital following his spleen injury was the most nervous he’d ever been.

“I didn’t come into this season (expecting) to lacerate my spleen,” Stone said. “That was definitely not on my bingo card. Usually you break a finger, break a foot, hurt your shoulder, do something normal, I guess. This wasn’t a normal injury.

“I think it’s behind me now. I’ll be good to go.”

Questions lie ahead

What comes next is an interesting offseason.

The Knights have six pending unrestricted free agents — leading goal scorer Jonathan Marchessault, Mantha, Carrier, center Chandler Stephenson, right wing Michael Amadio and defenseman Alec Martinez.

Marchessault, last season’s Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP, was the only one that spoke to the media Tuesday and said he hopes to stay.

The Knights don’t have the salary-cap space to keep everyone. They won’t be able to run things back two seasons in a row.

That means a much different team could take the ice next season, even though the Knights are confident they’ll remain a Stanley Cup contender.

“You only have so many opportunities with good teams,” Pietrangelo said. “It’s frustrating to not be able to capitalize. We’ll all be pretty eager to get back.”

Contact Danny Webster at dwebster@reviewjournal.com. Follow @DannyWebster21 on X.

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