Look at those cute smiles
Photo: Alex Brandon (AP)

In the follow-up performance to a Game 3 loss marked by defensive miscommunications and mishaps, the Vegas Golden Knights looked even worse for most of Game 4, falling to the Capitals 6-2 to go down 3-1 in the Stanley Cup Finals. On the whole, Vegas actually did a better job of creating dangerous chances and holding possession on the attack than they did on Saturday night. But when it came to the biggest moments of the game, they struggled just as badly.

It’s been a startling reversal to see a team so used to ruthlessly executing its offense and stifling its opponents on defense look as helpless as they have on the road in Washington. Before a third of the game was even played, Vegas’s uncharacteristic errors had already practically done them in. With 30 seconds to go in the first period, a turnover in their own zone led to a Devante Smith-Pelly goal, which gifted the Caps a 3-0 lead and all the momentum they needed.

It’s not that the Knights weren’t trying—they were crushing the Caps in the shot attempts battle even before Washington got too conservative—but on almost every shot, the Knights were shut down by either Braden Holtby, bad luck, or their own jitters. William Karlsson seemed weirdly hesitant with his opportunities, Alex Tuch and Brayden McNabb were each among the Golden Knights who could only hit the post on their shots, and the entire Vegas powerplay failed to show life in its highest-leverage chances.

Even James Neal, the only Knights skater with prior Stanley Cup experience, fell victim to the June gremlins, blowing a chance on a wide-open net just four minutes into the game with a shot too far to his right. If Neal converts, the entire series might be different. Instead, T.J. Oshie started the run of four straight Capitals goals just five minutes later.

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The Knights did, in the third, make the game ever-so-briefly tense with a pair of nifty goals from Neal and Reilly Smith, cutting the lead to 4-2 for about a minute until Michal Kempny regained the Caps’ foothold. But those players’ impacts would have been much stronger had the goals come before their team fell into a 4-0 ditch, and their effect is meaningless unless they provided a mental boost for Game 5 in Vegas. The rest of this game was just some predictable tough-guy posturing from the Knights as they tried and failed to look like they weren’t retreating back home in a desperate state.

We have, here with the Knights, a question of larger hockey philosophy. Is a team just barely missing so many times—and only converting once the game was lost—a sign that they’re doing everything right, but just getting a tad unlucky on timing? Or is Vegas a mostly inexperienced, shaky team failing to execute when the spotlight is shining brightest? Either way, this much is true: The Capitals did everything that the Golden Knights couldn’t in Game 4, and now they’re just one win away from the Stanley Cup.