The Vegas Golden Knights were eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Dallas Stars in a 3-2 overtime loss in Game 5 of the best-of-7 Western Conference Final on Monday at Rogers Place in Edmonton, the hub city for the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final.
The Golden Knights were the No. 1 seed in the West after going 3-0-0 in the round-robin portion of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers but lost to the No. 3-seeded Stars.
Vegas finished first in the Pacific Division during the regular season with a .606 points percentage (39-24-8), reaching the playoffs for the third straight season since entering the NHL in 2017-18. The Golden Knights advanced to the Cup Final but lost in five games to the Washington Capitals in 2018 and were eliminated in the first round by the San Jose Sharks in seven games in 2019.
Here is a look at what happened during the 2020 postseason for the Golden Knights and why things could be even better next season:
Potential unrestricted free agents: Robin Lehner, G; Tomas Nosek, F; Jon Merrill, D; Deryk Engelland, D
Potential restricted free agents: Nick Cousins, C; Chandler Stephenson, C
Potential 2020 NHL Draft picks: 5
What went wrong
Scoring dried up: The Golden Knights scored 45 goals in their first 12 postseason games (3.75 per game) and went 10-2-0 before scoring 12 in their final eight games (1.50 per game) and going 2-6. The struggles began in Game 5 of the second round against goalie Thatcher Demko and the Vancouver Canucks with Vegas holding a 3-1 series lead. The Golden Knights scored four goals in the final three games of that series and eight goals in the five games against the Stars. “There’s no doubt that the last couple of games of the Vancouver series against Demko probably rattled our confidence a little bit in that area as a group,” said Peter DeBoer, who replaced Gerard Gallant as Vegas coach Jan. 16. Forward Max Pacioretty, who led the Golden Knights with 32 goals in the regular season, went the final eight games without a goal. Forward Reilly Smith, who was second with 27 goals, scored once in the last 11 games, and center Jonathan Marchessault, who was third with 22 goals, failed to score in that span. Forward Mark Stone (21 goals) scored once in the final nine games, and center Paul Stastny (17) scored twice in the last 13.
Lacking timely goals: For all of its offensive-zone pressure and its 166-118 advantage in shots on goal in the series, Vegas scored once in the first period, the opening goal of Game 5. Dallas didn’t score a lot in the series either (nine goals), but its goals were more clutch, including coming back after falling behind 2-0 early in the third period of Game 5. Time spent leading in the series was nearly even (Stars, 87:40; Golden Knights, 86:56). In the five-game series, when Dallas twice won in overtime, it’s easy to identify the team that got timely scoring.
Control of key ice: Vegas’ intent during the conference final was to get more traffic in front of Dallas goalie Anton Khudobin, but that never quite materialized. “I think [the Stars] won the net-fronts in both ends,” DeBoer said. “They were better around their own net against our forwards, and they were better at our net making it tough on our defensemen.”
Reasons for optimism
Window still open: The Golden Knights appear built to continue contending, having laid a foundation of having a quality roster through their first three NHL seasons. On the ice, they’re aggressive and they’re quick, two essential elements for success. “We’ve got to learn some things from this about what works in the playoffs, how you score in the playoffs,” DeBoer said. “I’m still getting used to and getting to know the group. The goal of this team is to win the Stanley Cup, and they’re right in that window.”
Roster stability: Vegas has few holes to fill in the offseason and much of the core is signed for multiple seasons. Stone and forward William Karlsson each is signed through the next seven seasons, forward Alex Tuch through the next six, Marchessault through the next four, Pacioretty through the next three, and Smith through the next two. Defensemen Nate Schmidt and Shea Theodore each is signed through the next five seasons.
No. 1 goalie: The only major issue is figuring out the goaltending situation. Limited space under the NHL salary cap may force Vegas to choose between Lehner, who started 16 of 20 postseason games but is a potential unrestricted free agent, and Marc-Andre Fleury, who has been the face of the Golden Knights since their first season and has two years left on his contract. Whether they keep one or both, the Golden Knights will have a a strong No. 1 goalie.