It’s been a while since the Golden Knights had a visit from their good friend Mr. Heimlich. He made an appearance on Friday night in Montreal.
By the time his fist was positioned on Vegas’ navel ready to lodge the chicken wing bone that was trapped in the collective windpipe, Josh Anderson was partying inside Bell Centre.
The Golden Knights were 1:55 away from finally winning in Montreal, taking a 2-1 series lead in the semifinals and stealing back home-ice advantage.
Instead, the Golden Knights are left to ponder for the next 36 hours how they choked.
Because it is the Montreal Canadiens who will carry a 2-1 series lead thanks to Anderson’s two goals, including the game-winner in overtime, for a 3-2 win in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Semifinals.
Game 4 is at Montreal on Sunday, and suddenly, the Golden Knights’ season is on the brink of going up in smoke.
“We’re all professionals. You have to put this behind you and move on,” said forward Reilly Smith. “We had ample opportunities to score more goals tonight, and that’s where our focus is on.”
The Golden Knights could not have played a better road game. They outshot Montreal 30-8 through the first two periods, 45-27 overall, and out-attempted the Canadiens 68-45 through three periods. Vegas even took the 3,500 out of it by scoring first; Nicolas Roy gave the Golden Knights a 1-0 lead at 3:16 of the second period off a turnover from Eric Staal.
Then 38 seconds later, Nick Suzuki blocked a Nick Holden shot from the point, gathered the puck and found a streaking Cole Caufield down the center of the ice. His soft hands beat Marc-Andre Fleury top shelf to tie it 1-1.
Caufield’s goal wasn’t the backbreaker, but it cracked the spine a tad. The Golden Knights should’ve had a comfortable lead after 40 minutes. The Golden Knights, not the masters at drawing penalties, were given four power plays through two periods and did not capitalize on a single one.
Credit to Montreal’s stout penalty-killing unit, but that doesn’t excuse the Golden Knights being 4-for-38 on the man advantage throughout the entire postseason, and 1-for-18 dating back to Game 3 of the second round.
It’s no longer just a “find the problem, fix it” occurrence for the Golden Knights. Their inability to move the puck cleanly in the offensive zone, the struggle to even enter through the neutral zone, and even struggling off the draw has broken George McPhee.
The power play has broken George McPhee.#VegasBorn pic.twitter.com/0LJ6YMkgDY— Danny Webster (@DannyWebster21) June 19, 2021
“Our 5-on-5 play was excellent tonight for the majority of the game,” said captain Mark Stone, “but in a game like this, your power play has to step up for you, and the last two games our power play hasn’t stepped up.”
The Golden Knights withstood an early Montreal power play to re-take the lead 2:22 into the third, when Alex Pietrangelo continued his run of being the best Vegas skater for the past 10 games with his third goal of the series.
It was another night where the top six couldn’t muster any offense, and the Golden Knights had to rely on their defense to save the day from a goal-scoring point of view. You wonder what would’ve happened had Alex Tuch buried this chance in the third, had it not been for the supernatural prowess of Carey Price.
Braden Holtby is playing for Montreal, apparently. pic.twitter.com/W5Z8FK8nJN— Danny Webster (@DannyWebster21) June 19, 2021
With two minutes remaining, that looked to be enough. Surely, a play from behind the net from the Vezina Trophy nominee will be routinely made and more clock will be killed.
I'm just ... wow. pic.twitter.com/iIKIHYL4mP— Danny Webster (@DannyWebster21) June 19, 2021
This wasn’t Fleury’s first drastic mistake of the playoffs. When given the opportunity, he’s made amends for his blunders. This faux pass from Fleury, though, could have lingering effects. You don’t have to look far to see how this once benefitted Vegas. The Avalanche were six minutes away in Game 3 from taking a 3-0 series lead. Look how that turned out.
For Fleury to give that one up is at the apex of deflating. This series has been predicated on giving Montreal life, and that goal did that. The Habs were given life, found their forechecking legs in overtime, which led to the indescribable 2-on-0 for Anderson’s game-winner at 12:53.
“I think those types of events are tough to recover from,” said coach Pete DeBoer. “I didn’t think we were poor in overtime, but there’s no doubt that carried into the overtime.”
“It is disappointing,” Smith said. “He’s stood on his head for us all year. It’s not a big deal; we just have to move forward. We should’ve done a better job in overtime to close it out.”
What happened Friday night isn’t Earth-shattering. The Golden Knights can absolutely turn this series around. A win on Sunday brings the series back to Vegas at all level. It’s not like the world is crashing, but it’s hard to think otherwise when you blow a game like that.
He’s not wrong. But Montreal’s ability to capitalize on mistakes has them two wins from the Cup Final; the mistakes on the power play, the errors behind the net, the lack of production from the top six that is screaming deja vu from the bubble right now.
The series isn’t over. The Golden Knights, however, look to have a hard time coming back for air.
“I loved our game,” DeBoer said. “If we can play like that for the next week, I have a hard time believing they’re going to beat us two more times.”