Golden Knights’ title defense crumbles: What went wrong and what comes next for Vegas?

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DALLAS — Less than a year removed from hoisting the Stanley Cup, Sunday’s Game 7 defeat at the hands of the Dallas Stars didn’t sting any less for Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone.

“People say (winning) is addicting, and it is,” Stone said after the 2-1 loss that ended Vegas’ title defense. “I live for this s—. I think most of us do. As a hockey player, this is the most fun time that you’re ever going to have playing hockey. You want to be competing for the Stanley Cup, so when you do lose and you’re eliminated, it’s hard. It kind of crushes your soul for a couple days.”

Stone’s emotions were visible as he discussed the game and the series that slipped through Vegas’ fingers after winning Games 1 and 2 on the road. He was proud of his teammates for the season overall, and the way they fought on Sunday. With a matchup of Western Conference juggernauts in the first round, the difference between moving on to the second round and flying home for the summer came down to only a play or two.

“It’s disappointing,” Stone said. “That’s really the only way to say it. … Once you get up 2-0, I guess if we regret one thing we would’ve liked to have gotten a game at home there. But, at the end of the day, we gave ourselves a chance to win in Game 7 against a very good hockey team, and we didn’t get it done.”

Vegas played the top-seeded Stars well. A goalie was pulled for an extra attacker late in all seven games, speaking to how tightly contested the series was. In the end, both teams scored 16 goals, but on Sunday night the Stars got one more from fourth-line forward Radek Faksa, and that was the difference.

The Golden Knights never found their top gear in this postseason. Many of their top offensive players were held off the score sheet, and others contributed at times but didn’t look themselves for long stretches.

Does that make this early exit more disappointing, or is it encouraging that they took one of the best teams in the NHL to the brink without their best stuff?

“I think we had spurts throughout the series, but I don’t think we really got to that level that we wanted to,” said defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who had only one assist in the series.

For the third straight year, the Golden Knights were decimated by injuries during the regular season. They had nine different players undergo surgery, including key players that only just returned for the playoffs. Stone suffered a lacerated spleen. Tomas Hertl returned from a knee surgery that forced him out for the majority of the season. Pietrangelo had his appendix removed just days before the playoffs.

For long stretches of the series, the Golden Knights looked like a group of players that were exhausted from several deep playoff runs, coming off injuries, and still searching for chemistry at the wrong time of year.

“I give our guys a lot of credit,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “They played through a lot of injuries and tried to find chemistry with guys in and out (of the lineup). I think it took its toll eventually. Some of those surgeries you’re obviously correcting a problem, but it takes a while to get back up to speed, and I think that would be the unfortunate part.”

Vegas is a deep and talented team, but so is Dallas. The Stars never dominated, but they carried play more often than the Golden Knights, and one of the biggest reasons is likely that they were more in sync from months of playing together. Meanwhile, Cassidy was piecing together lines of players who had never stepped on the ice together, hoping to find a combination that worked.

“It defines your game,” Cassidy said. “If we could’ve built it a little better in March and April then maybe it’s a little smoother in the playoff round, but that’s the hand you’re dealt. That’s on me to find the chemistry, quickly. At times it looked good. At times we needed to generate more. I’m very proud of the group.”

Stone and Hertl both contributed big goals on the power play in this series. With play slowed down and space to operate, they showed the high-end offensive skill they possess, but at even strength neither looked themselves. With Stone on the ice at five-on-five Vegas was outscored 4-0. With Hertl it was 5-0.

“It’s tough,” Stone said. “There were four or five guys coming in trying to get chemistry, and it’s a little tougher. I think there are a lot of us that would’ve liked to produce a little more, but it’s a tight series.

“I was healthy enough to play, so I don’t make any excuses. I felt OK. I did the exact same thing last year, and it’s not the easiest thing in the world, but at the end of the day if you’re going to go out there, you have to produce and help your team win games.”

William Karlsson was also playing through a lower-body injury that kept him off the ice for most of the postseason, outside of games. He was limited on faceoffs due to the injury, and Cassidy said they gave him as many minutes as he could handle, but he also clearly wasn’t himself.

Along with the injuries themselves, the rash of players missing from the lineup ultimately impacted Vegas’ overall game. Teams are constantly preaching they must find their game by the time the playoffs roll around, and the Golden Knights never did. Their regular season inconsistencies also led to a much tougher first-round matchup than usual.

“We probably would’ve been better served putting ourselves in a better position in the regular season,” Stone said. “It’s never easy coming in as an eight seed trying to beat all of the top teams at the start. If you look at last year we got that top seed, and we were able to win in five (games), then win in six (games).”

If the Golden Knights escaped the first round, they may have found their stride, but they didn’t have the luxury of time. They ran straight into a deep Stars team with veteran experience and young offensive stars. It’s not as if the Golden Knights bowed out of the postseason with a whimper. Even with all they went through, they gave one of the NHL’s best teams all they could handle and came up just one goal short.

The question is, where do they go from here? It’s one thing to write many of the problems off due to injuries, but that’s something that has regularly plagued this roster. Vegas led the NHL in total cap hit lost due to injuries this season, and has finished in the top five of that stat for three straight seasons. One of the team’s biggest strengths is its wealth of experience, but it’s also an aging roster and that isn’t changing.

Stone has missed significant time for three consecutive years and turns 32 later this month. Hertl should be better after a full summer to recover, but as with any injury, it’s not a given. Many of Vegas’ most important players are over 30, including Pietrangelo, 34, who shoulders a heavy load on the blue line.

It’s a fair question to ask if the Golden Knights can make it through the grind of an 82-game regular season with enough players intact to hit the ground running when the postseason arrives. Last season they were remarkably healthy for the entire Cup run, so they proved it’s possible.

“I have no doubt in my mind that we’re going to be right back here in 12 months getting ready to go,” Stone said. “Obviously we’re going to take some time off to reflect on it, but the work starts. We have a dedicated group of guys. Last year was the most fun all of us have ever had playing the game of hockey. We want to get back there.”

The reality is next year’s team will look very different. After last summer’s Cup run Vegas brought mostly the same roster back, but now faces an offseason with six players set to hit unrestricted free agency.

Most notably, the team’s leading scorer Jonathan Marchessault is without a contract. Not only was he the most consistent offensive producer, who played in all 82 games, but his feisty, exuberant personality is woven into the fabric of the organization. Losing him would hurt in more than one way, and he’s not the only player in need of a contract.

Chandler Stephenson, William Carrier, Michael Amadio, Anthony Mantha and Alec Martinez are all pending unrestricted free agents. Vegas already has roughly $81.8 million in salary committed to next year’s roster — not including the $5 million cap hit for Robin Lehner, who has been on long-term injured reserve for two years.

That leaves very little room to add, so some key players from this roster will not be returning. Whether it’s from the list of UFAs above, or players traded to clear space to sign them, is still to be determined. There are tough choices to be made.

“We’re probably not going to be able to bring everybody back,” Stone said. “That’s just the nature of hockey. It kind of brings tears to your eyes when you realize that you’re not going to be with the same group of guys because you build these bonds and friendships then you have to see teammates and friends go. Man, I really thought we could’ve done some damage going forward.”

The Golden Knights are still an excellent hockey team. They showed that this postseason, even in defeat. They came up short against an elite team, even while not at their best. Still, there are some questions about what their best will look like moving forward, another year deeper into this championship window.

We will look back on this hard-fought series as either a blip on the radar or the beginning of the decline for a talented but aging roster.

Stone and his teammates are confident, and they have plenty of reasons to be.

“I guess for our organization it’s fuel for the fire,” Stone said. “We’ll be ready for September to be ready to be right back here next season. … We’ve always been good at having a chip on our shoulder, so we have to use this as another chip.”

(Photo of Mark Stone: Matthew Pearce / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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