There is no secret to what is happening to the Golden Knights, now down 3-1 in the Stanley Cup final after playing nigh-unbeatable throughout the playoffs. The zamboni has transformed back into a pumpkin, and not just a regular pumpkin, but a gross smelly rotted one.
They are being outskilled and outlucked by the Capitals—domination like these last three games tends to require both—and are only now looking like an expansion team. This is not an indictment; they are not frauds being exposed, or anything like that. This isn’t even exactly regression, as the Vegas skeptics have been awaiting since, oh, October—things are currently going so badly that you’d expect re-regression back to something far more respectable than this.
“Just maybe some puck luck or just not bearing down,” said VGK forward Alex Tuch. “It happens. It’s hockey,”
Here’s the requisite PDO paragraph! Feel free to skip it if you know the deal. PDO is a statistic that, essentially, measures luck. You take a team’s shooting percentage and its save percentage, sum them, and see what you get. Since all those percentages will add up to exactly 100 leaguewide (one team’s goal is another team’s goal against), a team with a PDO over 100 is lucky/bound to eventually regress to 100. The Golden Knights, in these finals, have a shooting percentage of 8.1 percent; well below the league average. Marc-Andre Fleury, the Conn Smythe leader coming in, has a disastrous save percentage of .845 in this series. Add those together and you get a finals PDO of .926. That’s really bad; more than an entire tenth of a point lower than the (extremely high) PDO the team sported through the first three rounds. In layman’s terms, at least one out of every 10 chances that was going Vegas’s way earlier in the playoffs no longer is. That’s how a Cinderella story ends. Yes, it’s a tiny sample size, but that’s what a series is—every goal and every missed opportunity are magnified.
Yet those numbers are unexplanatory, and they do both teams involved in this series a disservice. Fleury has not suddenly turned into “Me, magically transported inside his equipment and forced to tend goal in the Stanley Cup final.” Just as he is not a .947 goaltender—his playoff save percentage heading into this series—he is also not an .845. No NHL goalie is. He hasn’t been good, but he hasn’t been nearly as bad as his numbers. So many of the goals this series have not been his fault, the result of nearly unsaveable shot opportunities. The Caps have been able to get the puck down low unharassed, and move it around with abandon, testament both to their offense and to Vegas’s defense, always its lurking weak spot, being simply overmatched. “I think at least five of the six goals were wide-open nets,” Knights coach Gerard Gallant said last night. “There was nothing he could have done.”
“Obviously, we have the best goalie in the league,” center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare said. “He’s been carrying us all year long and we feel like the goals he’s letting in, there’s not much he can do on those. So we have to assess what we did wrong. We have to be better.”
On the other end, Vegas’s shots just aren’t going home like they used to. Credit the Caps defense and Braden Holtby, but blame some bad luck too. The Golden Knights have hit seven posts in the last two games, and actually led Game 4 in high-danger scoring opportunities, but aren’t converting.
And no miss was more representative, or more potentially game-changing, than James Neal missing a wide-open net on a power play early in the first:
“I hit the post,” Neal said, his lip bloodied, his laugh laced with frustration, his locker surrounded by reporters for the wrong reason. “It probably changes the game. It’s probably a different game after that. You know we get the first one ... It’s tough.”
It’s a good example of a play I’m not really sure how to divvy up the classification of luck and skill. NHL players don’t usually squander open nets like that; surely that’s just awful luck for Neal. And yet ... he missed it. No one else.
And who knows how the game might’ve gone if Vegas was sitting on an early lead? “I’ve been on the other side of that, it’s deflating,” Caps forward Brett Connolly noted. It’s also an illustration of how the smallest of sample sizes can have effects writ large; large as an engraving on a certain cup, perhaps.