WASHINGTON — Throughout their first three playoff series, the Vegas Golden Knights were defined by smart decisions and dazzling plays.
In the Stanley Cup Final, their mistakes have drawn most of the attention.
Vegas made too many errors in its own end of the ice and scored just one gift-wrapped goal Saturday night in a 3-1 loss to the Washington Capitals, who never trailed in taking a 2-1 lead in the best-of-7 series.
There were missed assignments, botched passes and only 22 shots on goal. The Golden Knights hardly looked like the team that steamrolled its way to the Western Conference championship with a 12-3 record.
After opening the Final with a 6-4 victory, Vegas lost Game 2 when Alex Tuch failed to convert a wonderful scoring chance in the waning minutes. There was more trouble coming as the series arrived in Washington.
On Saturday night, after the Golden Knights closed to 2-1 early in the third period, the Capitals restored the two-goal cushion when Jay Beagle outworked Vegas defenseman Shea Theodore in the corner, gained possession of the puck and sent a centering pass that Devante Smith-Pelly slammed into the net at 13:53.
“It didn’t go his way tonight,” left wing David Perron said of Theodore. “You just have to move forward and turn the page.”
Ditto for the rest of the Golden Knights, who now trail in a playoff series after three games for the first time.
“It’s all on us right now,” Deryk Engelland said. “We’ve just got to tighten it up and get going on the ice.”
After becoming only the third NHL team to win multiple playoff series in its inaugural season, Vegas charged into the Final looking to extend its unprecedented run of success.
It started well in Game 1, and there seemed no reason to panic after the subsequent 3-2 defeat. But the Golden Knights’ downturn continued Saturday night, when they too often let goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury contend for himself and failed to mount much of a threat against Braden Holtby on the other end.
In one telling sequence, Alex Ovechkin opened the scoring early in the second period as he was falling over Vegas defenseman Brayden McNabb. It happened only after Fleury slid from side to side, frantically making three saves in the sequence before Ovechkin connected.
“It’s a team game,” said Fleury, who had 23 saves. “I just try to do my job the best I can.”
Vegas has lost two straight for the first time since early April, when it dropped the final two meaningless games of the regular season. The Golden Knights are struggling on both ends of the ice, and at this point they can’t explain why.
“We didn’t play good in the neutral zone, turned a lot of pucks over and fed their offense,” said Tomas Nosek, who scored Vegas’ only goal. “Also, the back-check was not good enough.”
Vegas still has a chance to become the first expansion team to win the Stanley Cup. But when the Final is tied at one game apiece, the winner of Game 3 ultimately has gone on to capture the Cup 78 percent of the time (21 of 27) since the series went to the best-of-seven format in 1939.
The only deficit the Golden Knights faced before this was in the Western Conference finals, when they lost the opener to Winnipeg before rattling off four straight wins.
“Tonight it was a close hockey game,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “It was 2-1 late in the (third) period, and then that unfortunate turnover goal.”
To be fair, the Golden Knights’ goal came in similar fashion. After Holtby did a poor job of clearing the puck from behind the Capitals net, Nosek easily scored to slice Washington’s lead to 2-1 at 3:29 of the third period.
But Vegas had already dug a hole that was too deep.
“They came out in the first period and set the tone,” Gallant said. “We were chasing them from behind again tonight.”
That is the predicament Vegas now faces in the series, with Game 4 on Monday night.
“We’ve got to find a way to bounce back and put this behind us,” Perron said.
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