Golden Knights fall short of Cup Final again, questions lie ahead

The pressure to win has now reached its apex.

For the second straight postseason, the Golden Knights have been eliminated in the Stanley Cup Semifinals.

In Canada. To a team featuring Corey Perry. Against an interim coach. By a score of 3-2, in overtime, with Robin Lehner as the starting goalie.

It’s all coming back to me now. The Golden Knights are [Celine] done yet again.

It took 1:39 for the Golden Knights to have hope for a Game 7, to now facing an offseason of  unusual proportions. The Montreal Canadiens are heading to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1993, thanks to Artturi Lehkonen’s game-winner for the 3-2 victory.

As was the case the majority of this series, the Canadiens ended it with a sound odd-man rush. Alec Martinez’s shot from the point off an offensive-zone draw ricocheted off Carey Price’s mask, and the flying puck landed to Brendan Gallagher. Once he skated through the neutral zone, four Canadiens entered the rush with the Vegas defensemen back.

Phillip Danault’s backhand found Lehkonen on the left side, and the Golden Knights’ season ended to 3,500 Habs fans inside Bell Centre — and likely thousands more outside — partying like it’s 1993.

“When you get to this point, the teams that win find another level. They don’t sag. We didn’t find another level, and they did,” said coach Pete DeBoer. “I thought they were opportunistic. They owned the key moments of the series.”

Montreal found its other level since Game 5 of the first round and hasn’t looked back. The Canadiens are marching to the Cup Final winners of 11 of their past 13 games and are the farthest thing from a cute, Cinderella run. The Canadiens deserve every bit of credit for being where they are now.

While all that is true, the Golden Knights fell short again. And the only questions that should be asked right now, are how and why?

How did this team, who overcame the demon that was the Minnesota Wild in seven games and rallied from 2-0 to eliminate the Colorado Avalalnche, seemingly fall flat against a team that they should have beaten? And why are they on the outside looking in for the second straight season?

You couldn’t put the Golden Knights’ return to the Cup Final on any bigger platter than after Game 4. After winning in overtime, the series shifts to a best-of-3 with home-ice advantage in your back pocket. It’s the appropriate stage for the top players to be at their best.

Instead, the Golden Knights lay an egg at home in Game 5, and had to rally with hard-earned goals to force overtime on Thursday night.

“It’s hard to take in, but I thought we battled hard. I’m really proud of our guys’ season,” Lehner said. “Everyone worked really hard, and it’s not easy to get to the Stanley Cup Finals. We were right there.”

They were right there. Just like they were right there in the Edmonton bubble, and right there before giving up four power-play goals in five minutes the season prior.

The Golden Knights have been right there to the point of making the moves for Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, Alex Pietrangelo, and even Lehner. General manager Kelly McCrimmon said once the team acquired Stone, Vegas went from a “cute” story to a real contender.

Well, when you become a contender, you get met with scrutiny if you fall short.

And in part of naming a captain, the responsibility lies at his feet if the team doesn’t win, and if he doesn’t perform.

Stone didn’t score a single point in the series. His line was bottled up by the Danault line all series. The Vegas forwards accounted for only four of the 13 goals scored in six games. Stone wasn’t one of them. That can’t happen.

“I got skunked this series. That can’t happen,” Stone said. “I’m the captain of this team, the leader of this team. I take a lot of responsibility for what just occurred.”

DeBoer said his captain shouldn’t take on the burden alone, and he’s not wrong on that front. Where does the blame lie?

The coaching, for putting together a power play that went 0-for-15 in the series and 0-for-17 dating back to the Colorado series?

Management, for putting all their eggs in one basket on Pietrangelo (which was fine) but not having enough space to go find someone who could score?

This roster is built to win a lot of games. Clearly, it’s not at a championship-level yet.

“I think for me, our group, I thought we took a step from a year ago when we got to this point. I thought we were better,” DeBoer said. “We were better during the regular season. We were better during the playoffs against two really tough teams in Minnesota and Colorado, but we still fell off at the wrong time, so there’s another door we’ve got to find a way to barge through at this time of year and I think everybody’s got to look in the mirror, obviously coaches included.”

The timeline is always advancing from the “Playoffs in 3, Cup in 6” mantra set by Bill Foley. It’s coming up on Year 5, and questions will need to be answered on the makeup of this team and how it can get over that hump.

Maybe the Golden Knights need to follow the Tampa Bay Lightning’s blueprint: have multiple conference final appearances, lose in the Cup Final, then have a 128-point season and get swept in the first round. Only then will they win the Cup and then come within one win of making it back-to-back seasons.

The Golden Knights have a lot of decisions to make between now and October. Once the dust settles, the pressure to win will finally reach its apex.

“I think it’s just getting over that hump. Teams go through this,” Stone said. “We’ve got to continue to learn and grow this organization. Going into Year 5, the expectation is to win the Stanley Cup.”