EDMONTON — Peter DeBoer didn't prepare a speech to give his Vegas Golden Knights in the event they lost Game 5 of the Western Conference final to end their run in the NHL bubble, because he didn't think they'd lose.
After they did, in stinging fashion blowing a two-goal lead and giving up a power-play goal in overtime, DeBoer and the Golden Knights were left to grapple with the question: How could this happen? Vegas controlled the play for much of the series, outshot the Dallas Stars 166-118 and looked like the better team, yet it lost in five games to bow out of the playoffs.
"I felt even the games we lost here in the bubble I felt we could win — we could’ve won," DeBoer said. "We were right there. It’s a very slim margin. We just couldn’t get a timely goal in order to put us in the position to be on the right side of that ledger."
Vegas scored one fewer goal than Dallas, yet the Stars are the ones going to the Stanley Cup Final. By all conventional wisdom, the Golden Knights should probably be leading a series that's ongoing, but that's hockey.
"It was a tight series," forward Reilly Smith said. "I think our team probably outplayed them for 90% of it, but they scored timely goals."
It's hard to even find a scapegoat, which is usually not the case when a team loses four games to one in a series. Zach Whitecloud sent the puck over the glass for a delay-of-game penalty that paved the way for Denis Gurianov's OT goal, but teammates said Game 5 wasn't on the young defenceman, whose play helped the Golden Knights get this far.
Goaltender Robin Lehner wasn't the problem, either, though he conceded, "You wish you come up with a save there" on Dallas' tying and series-winning goals. After DeBoer made him his starter over face of the franchise Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas faces a big question of what to do: Probably extend Lehner and go from there.
Those are questions for the weeks ahead. The past two months were full of the Golden Knights winning before it fell apart.
Vegas looked like a buzz-saw, winning 10 of its first 12 post-season games. Smith called it "probably the best, most skilled team" he has been on, and for almost half the playoffs it looked like that and more.
Then, Vancouver goaltender Jacob Markstrom got hurt, and rookie Thatcher Demko came in and stopped 123 of 125 shots. The Golden Knights survived by winning Game 7 that round, but some damage was done to their psyche.
"There’s no doubt that the last couple games of the Vancouver series against Demko probably rattled our confidence a little bit," DeBoer said.
Then Stars journeyman goalie Anton Khudobin did his best Demko impression and his teammates forced Vegas to take shots — a lot of them — from mostly outside. Dallas coach Rick Bowess said, "We’ll give them that," while conceding this wasn't really a blowout series by any means.
"Vegas did a great job," Bowness said. "That franchise had a great year, and it’s a great franchise. They put up more of a fight than the 4-1 will tell you, so congratulations to them."
There was little solace in that for Vegas, which was a legitimate title contender for the third consecutive season. The organization has only been around for three seasons but has already moved quickly from expansion darling to NHL powerhouse.
With that prestige also comes higher expectations, so there wasn't a lot of optimism about getting this far or the potential long playoff runs ahead.
"Definitely feel defeated," Smith said. "It’s positive looking into the future, but that’s not what we’re doing right now. We all feel like this is a wasted opportunity."
DeBoer, who took over when Gerard Gallant was fired in January, fell just short of taking a third different team to the final. He said the Golden Knights are "right in that window" to win in the years ahead, if they can put into practice what a brutal loss like this teaches players and coaches.
"We’ve got to learn some things from this about what works in the playoffs and how you score in the playoffs," DeBoer said. "Another learning lesson for our guys at this time of year: fighting through, persevering, finding a way to get yourself out of a slump, getting your confidence back quicker, all those things. And I'm sure on coaching, too. What can I do differently? There's things I'm sure that I could’ve done differently that I’ve got to look at."
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