A shot by Vegas Golden Knights forward James Neal (18) misses an open net as Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby, right, defends during the first period in Game 4 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Final, Monday, June 4, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Missed chances push Vegas to brink of elimination in Final

June 04, 2018 - 10:22 pm
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WASHINGTON (AP) — James Neal had the puck on his stick and was staring at an open net. In a can't-miss situation, that's exactly what he did.

Poised to give the Vegas Golden Knights the opening goal in pivotal Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final, the unquestioned veteran leader of this upstart expansion team hit the right post.

Ping! The puck bounced off the metal bar, skipped behind Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby and slithered harmlessly toward the back boards.

The Golden Knights, a team in desperate need of a boost of confidence, collectively shrugged. And, not surprisingly, Vegas sputtered the rest of the way Monday night in a 6-2 defeat that has the Golden Knights on the brink of elimination. Washington can win its first Stanley Cup on Thursday night in Las Vegas.

Although the Capitals have blown many a playoff series in the past, only one team, the 1942 Detroit Red Wings, has lost the Stanley Cup Final after holding a 3-1 lead.

Barring a comeback of historical proportions — an unlikely occurrence after being outscored 12-5 over the past three games — the Golden Knights will always remember this series for "The Stick" and "The Post."

"The Stick" was wielded by Holtby, who used it late in Game 2 to snuff a close-in shot by Alex Tuch in a 3-2 Washington victory. "The Post" is a symbol of the frustration Vegas has experienced in this series after winning 12 of 15 in roaring to the Western Conference title.

Who knows if things would have been different on Monday night if Neal put the puck in the net?

This much is certain: The reeling Golden Knights were looking for something, anything, to build upon when they entered Game 4, and a 1-0 lead would have been splendid.

Presented with a power play in a scoreless first period, Vegas worked the puck around smartly in the Washington zone. Then, Erik Haula whisked a cross-ice pass to Neal on the left side of the net, and Holby was slow to react.

Neal blew the shot, and the Capitals rattled off three straight goals before the period ended to take full control.

Game over.

Tuch and Brayden McNabb both lined shots off the post later in the game, and Neal scored with just under 16 minutes left to make it 4-1. But the outcome by then was all but decided.

The Golden Knights have struggled to generate offense against the tenacious Washington defense, and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has not been as sharp as he was in Vegas' three previous series. He gave up six goals on 23 shots as Vegas dropped its third straight game.

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