Peter DeBoer repeated a simple message after the Vegas Golden Knights’ 2-1 loss to the Dallas Stars in Game 4 of the Western Conference Final on Saturday.
“Just got to stick with it,” the coach said.
Vegas faces a dire situation. Dallas can win the best-of-7 series in Game 5 at Rogers Place in Edmonton, the hub city for the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final, on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).
Since the NHL introduced the conference format in 1981-82, teams with a 3-1 lead in the conference finals have won 34 of 35 series. The lone team to come back and win was the 1999-00 New Jersey Devils, who did it against the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Finals.
But DeBoer said this is similar to the Western Conference Second Round, when the Golden Knights had a 3-1 series lead against the Vancouver Canucks, ran into a hot goalie in Thatcher Demko and needed seven games to advance.
“We faced some of this in the Vancouver series, and we stuck with it,” DeBoer said. “This is a long way from over, and we’re going to be a tough out.”
In the second round, the Golden Knights lost 2-1 in Game 5 despite outshooting the Canucks 43-17, lost 4-0 in Game 6 despite outshooting them 48-23, and won 3-0 in Game 7 after outshooting them 36-14.
In the conference final, the Golden Knights lost 1-0 in Game 1, which DeBoer attributed to tired legs after playing three games in four nights. They won 3-0 in Game 2, outshooting the Stars 32-24. But then Dallas goalie Anton Khudobin turned into another Demko. Vegas lost 3-2 in overtime in Game 3 despite outshooting Dallas 40-23.
DeBoer emphasized scoring the first goal in Game 4, hoping to force the Stars out of their defensive structure. The Golden Knights got it when defenseman Alec Martinez scored on the power play at 7:44 of the first period, but they held it for less than four minutes.
Dallas forward Joe Pavelski got a lucky bounce when a puck deflected off the stick of Vegas defenseman Nate Schmidt and over the glove of goalie Robin Lehner at 11:34. The shots were 22-6, Vegas, before that goal. Dallas forward Jamie Benn scored on the power play at 19:01, and the Stars protected the lead.
The Golden Knights failed to answer despite a 5-on-3 for 1:10 in the third period, and they lost another game despite a lopsided shot total, this one 33-20, Vegas.
“We’ve been here before,” DeBoer said. “We were in the exact situation against Vancouver with a goalie playing like this and a team playing like this. We stuck with it long enough to get through that. For me, it’s perseverance.”
DeBoer said he thought the Golden Knights made a better effort to take away Khudobin’s eyes, and he seemed satisfied with the performance of his top players.
“All we need is to finish,” DeBoer said. “I think the effort’s there. I think we’re creating a lot of really good looks. I think defensively we’ve been really good. Their best player, Joe Pavelski, takes a backhand, rolls up the shaft of our stick and over our goalie’s shoulder. We haven’t gotten any of those. We’ve got to stick with it until we do.”
The Golden Knights have little margin for error one game from elimination, however.
After scoring 45 goals in their first 12 postseason games, they have 10 in their past seven, including four from forwards that were not empty-netters.
Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith each has gone 10 games without a goal. Max Pacioretty has gone seven.
Mark Stone and Alex Tuch each has one goal in his past eight games. William Karlsson has one in seven.
Paul Stastny has two in 12.
“Forwards, I think we’re trying to get to the net,” Smith said. “It seems that it’s just a mad scramble, and we’re not finding loose pucks. So as a forward group, we’ve got to do a better job of finding some of those pucks and scoring timely goals, because [we] can’t rely on our defense to score every goal for us every single night.”
How do the forwards handle the next two days?
“Obviously, there’s a sense of urgency right now, where we are in the series,” Smith said. “But you have to stay positive. The more you get down on yourself, you kind of put yourself in the opposite direction.
“So goals are going to be scored in the hard areas. We know that. We just have to start finding pucks and do a better job making space for each other and clearing space in front of their net. It seems like the puck is bouncing every way but in the net. We’ve just got to find a way to change that.”