For such a fledgling organization, the Vegas Golden Knights sure have had their share of heartbreak.
They had the dream inaugural season end with the Washington Capitals passing around the Stanley Cup in their own arena. Worse than that, it seemed, was the crushing collapse in the first round of last season’s playoffs when the San Jose Sharks, who had fallen behind 3-1 in the series, scored four times on a controversial five-minute major penalty late in the third period of Game 7 before eliminating the Golden Knights in overtime.
No scar, however, might have been more damaging in their three-year history than a failure to survive the Vancouver Canucks inside the Edmonton bubble.
Vegas was, to put it plainly, the vastly superior team. And after jumping out to a commanding 3-1 advantage in the series over their Pacific Division rivals, the Golden Knights arguably emerged as the favourite to win the Stanley Cup.
Yet despite their clear superiority, and a remarkable ability to not let incredible and repeated misfortune impact their process, the Golden Knights continued to run into something just as relentless as their shift-over-shift pursuit of the puck.
Vancouver netminder Thatcher Demko delivered one of the single-best short-term performances in recent postseason history in place of Jacob Markstrom while the Golden Knights poured it on for the better part of three games across four nights.
Demko made 122 saves on 124 shots, and over the course of two hours and 18 minutes of shutout hockey, stopped 98 consecutive looks from Golden Knights shooters. With three chances to eliminate the Canucks, and despite running up a 126-54 shot advantage, Vegas was forced to wait until there was just over six minutes remaining in Game 7 to finally earn its breakthrough.
That’s when Shea Theodore scored with a well-placed point shot through traffic on the power play to give the Golden Knights a lead it would add to with a pair of empty netters for a 3-0 victory.
With countless attacks thwarted, an untold number of opportunities wasted, and time running out on a season that was shaping up so favourably, the Golden Knights were being pushed toward a breaking point by nothing more than an individual performance that was beginning to defy all reason.
Which is why their performance in Game 7, after failing to bury the Canucks in the last two meetings for no reason other than a failure to solve a hot netminder, was so unbelievably impressive.
The Golden Knights racked up shot after shot, and chance after chance, from the moment the puck was dropped in the deciding game, simply refusing to relent until they finally found an avenue to the back of the net. They limited Vancouver to two shots in the first period, just six through 40 minutes, and only 20 5-on-5 attempts in the game, compared to 60 of their own.
It was a near-perfect outing, at least when measured at even strength. And in the handful of times where Robin Lehner had to provide a save, he was there to match his team’s level of excellence — and Demko’s for that matter.
What separates Vegas from the teams that have been eliminated, and likely several of the few still remaining in the tournament, is its ability to create its own advantages. Yet Demko is proof that one hot netminder in this sport can invalidate any sized edge in shots, chances, or time spent in the attacking zone.
For Vegas, the series reached the point where one mistake could have easily cost the Golden Knights the chance to continue chasing the Stanley Cup. Lesser teams would have folded under that pressure, and suffered for it.
It’s why despite being the better team, and being wise to it, but needing more games than they should have and in the end only narrowly avoiding another damaging postseason exit, the Golden Knights have accomplished more than they could with a series that better reflected the actual run of play.
Every champion meets a make-or-break moment in the postseason, and in a brief history for the Golden Knights, it’s been the latter in that scenario.
There will be challenges ahead for sure, but they might pale in comparison to what Demko provided, and what the Golden Knights were able to overcome.
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