When history looks back on the 2021 Golden Knights, it will show that they came up short. Again.
Technically, you can split hairs and say they were one win closer this season than last, but in the end, the round was the same, and the way they went out was almost identical to the year prior.
For four years running the most successful expansion franchise in North American history has been able to call itself a contender. Since the world realized how good this team can be sometime in December of 2017, it’s been fair and accurate to consider them among the most likely options to win the Stanley Cup each and every year.
But each year, it hasn’t happened and every time we’re left with the same feeling of emptiness. A feeling of “what could have been.”
If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past four postseason failures though, is that while the bleak feeling will always exist, it feels different each time.
This one doesn’t feel like the first season. It certainly doesn’t feel like the second year that ended with an apology from the NHL. And while it should feel a lot like the third one, it doesn’t.
It’s because this team showed improvement from the last.
I thought we took a step from a year ago when we got to this point. I thought we were better during the regular season, better the playoffs against two really tough teams in Minnesota and Colorado. But we still fell off at the wrong time. There’s another door we’ve got to find a way to barge through at this time of year. -Pete DeBoer
Of course, the regular season wasn’t what it usually is, and the West Division was even more of a joke than the Pacific has been since the Golden Knights arrived, but there’s always something to take away from 56 games. What Vegas took from them was consistency. Any lapses in the Golden Knights’ play rarely lasted longer than a period, let alone a game, or a week.
Then, when the playoffs came around, they were faced with a similar obstacle to the one that tripped them up in the bubble. Dallas and Minnesota play a similar brand of defense and for a portion of the beginning of that series, it was working against the Golden Knights.
That was the first step.
The goals they needed came.
Jonathan Marchessault’s game-tier in Game 2. Mark Stone and Patrick Brown in Game 3 to rescue them after a terrible 1st period. Mattias Janmark’s hat trick in Game 7. Plus, goals from Nic Hague, Zach Whitecloud, Nic Roy, and a bunch from Alex Tuch proved this team could break through that wall created by the Wild.
Then, there was the next step, the big one. Colorado.
The Avalanche were the best team the Golden Knights had faced in the playoffs since the Washington Capitals. That Avs team was complete. They had plenty of high-end talent, a deep forward group, a mobile defense, and a Vezina finalist goalie.
Beating them matters. But even beyond that, beating them the way the Golden Knights did matters. They snuffed out a superstar, they made a great defensive corps look lost trying to exit their own zone, and they made a goalie who was having the year of his life look average.
The Golden Knights imposed their will on one of the league’s best teams and it’s something they’ll always have in their back pocket as a memory when the next postseason run comes.
Finally, there was even a step inside of the series that ended the season. Yes, it was similar to the way they went out against Dallas and of course, there are parallels that should and will be drawn about how the opposition was able to cause the VGK rush-reliant offense to dry up.
But the Golden Knights had true life in this one, something they really didn’t against Dallas.
Game 1 was a truly dominant win. Game 4 was a rescue effort that came in the form of two unlikely heroes (McNabb and Roy). And then there was the gift the Golden Knights handed Montreal in Game 3. Unlike Dallas a year ago, this was a truly close series.
I’m excited to learn from mistakes and try and build this team to a Stanley Cup winner and not just a contender. -Mark Stone
2021 is over. The roster will change between now and puck drop on year number five. But a lot of the same pieces will be there when the Golden Knights take the ice again, and whatever moves are made will inject even more vigor into a team that knows how close they really are.
Last year was a bit of a mirage, this one wasn’t. The proof was on the ice, even as difficult as it was to watch as it ended last night.