Published Friday, May 12, 2023 | 9:53 p.m.
Updated Friday, May 12, 2023 | 11:58 p.m.
The same memory from four years ago flooded nearly everyone’s minds at T-Mobile Arena on Friday night when Golden Knights forward Keegan Kolesar took a five-minute major penalty for boarding the Edmonton Oilers’ Mattias Ekholm.
A similar late-game call infamously and controversially ended Vegas’ Stanley Cup Playoff run in 2019 by helping to wipe out a two-goal lead against the San Jose Sharks. Was history going to painfully repeat?
The situation was surely “stressful,” in forward Jonathan Marchessault’s words, for the 18,590 fans in attendance, but the players weren’t immune to feeling the similarities either, at least not the handful of players who were on the 2019 team. Forward Reilly Smith went out of his way not to explicitly address to the previous loss after the game but alluded to it multiple times.
“You’re aware of situations (because) you only get so many opportunities in the playoffs,” Smith said in the dressing room. “So, to have things slip away like that is pretty tough. We did a better job this time.”
A gutsy five-minute penalty kill that stretched for 20 seconds at the end of the second period into the start of the third period ultimately led Vegas to a 4-3 victory over Edmonton in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinal series. The Golden Knights gave up one goal to Connor McDavid during the stretch, but otherwise went unscathed to take a 3-2 series lead into Sunday’s Game 6 at Edmonton.
Turning away the Oilers’ other six shots was no small feat considering the visitors have the best man-advantage in the history of the NHL statistically. Edmonton’s power play had already chipped in eight goals throughout the series including a pair in Friday’s first period.
And Vegas goalie Adin Hill, with all due respect, wouldn’t figure to be as sure of a stopper as future Hall of Famer Marc-Andre Fleury four years ago against the Sharks. Hill made his second playoff start, after returning from a lower-body injury and taking over for Laurent Brossoit after the goalie went down in a Game 3 loss on Monday. It went much more smoothly this outing after his first start in the 4-1 beatdown in Edmonton in Game 4 on Wednesday.
But he said he felt he “picked up where he left off” with 32 saves on the night. The score only went from 4-2 to 4-3 with him locked in during the major penalty behind an attacking defense — much different than when San Jose went from down 3-1 to up 4-3 in Game 7 of the 2019 first-round series.
“That could have been a turning point in the game big-time, and we got through it,” Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said in his postgame news conference. “Even though we lost the special-teams battle, three to two, I think in reality, in our minds, we won it. That’s how we look at it. On five-on-five, our game is solid.”
The Golden Knights have outplayed the Oilers at even strength for the majority of the five games so far, but they also held their own on special teams Friday despite the inauspicious start. Vegas had three first-period power play opportunities, but failed to capitalize on any of them to drop its rate to 2-for-18 on the series at the time. Edmonton’s two early power-play goals, on the other hand, came relatively easily with McDavid and Zach Hyman scoring right in front of the net.
Everything changed in the second period when the Oilers picked up back-to-back whistles — a holding call on Philip Broberg followed by a high-sticking on Mattias Ekholm — to give the Golden Knights a 5-on-3 advantage.
That was enough to break them out of their power-play funk, as Mark Stone forced a goal in from the paint in front of Stuart Skinner to tie the game at 2-2.
Then, 29 seconds later, Reilly Smith converted on a pinpoint pass from William Karlsson inches from the net to give the Golden Knights their first lead of the night.
The onslaught didn’t end there. Nicolas Hague added another score, firing a puck past Skinner’s left side from the blue line to put the Golden Knights up 4-2.
The three goals came in a total of 1:29 of game time, the fastest a trio of scores have come in franchise playoff history.
“I thought we did some good things tonight, but in the end, that segment in the second period hobbled us and we weren’t able to get it done,” Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft said.
The home crowd erupted louder than it has all postseason, but celebrations were cut short five minutes later when Kolesar viciously forced Ekholm into the boards. Dirty plays and scuffles were far fewer in Game 5 than in Game 4, which included Vegas defenseman Alex Pietrangelo slashing Edmonton superstar Leon Draisaitl late to draw a one-game suspension served Friday, but Kolesar’s penalty definitely fell in the former category. And it’s a wonder it didn’t cause a bout of the latter.
Ekholm was helped off the ice but later returned in the third period.
The Golden Knights went all-out to prevent Kolesar’s mistake from sinking them, flinging their bodies at shots and following Cassidy’s words at the second intermission to be aggressive in going after the Oilers.
“We’ve been in that situation before where they can really hurt you, so we’re obviously pretty cognizant that you can’t let those momentum shifts slide,” Smith said. “We did a good job. We kept them to the outside, tired them out and we took a lot of momentum out of it.”
Vegas kept limiting Edmonton’s chances for the rest of the period with their forecheck and puck possession. The Oilers weren’t able to pull goalie Jack Campbell, who came in for Skinner after Hague’s goal, for an extra skater until two minutes remained because of how long the Golden Knights controlled the puck in their zone.
The Golden Knights blocked a couple more shots, and Hill turned a few away to secure the victory. For one night at least, “five-minute major” can’t count as a cursed phrase for the Golden Knights.
On the contrary, managing such a penalty lifted Vegas to being one victory away from the fourth Stanley Cup Playoff semifinal berth in the franchise’s six-year history.”
“We knew we could use that five-minute penalty as a momentum swing for us if we killed it properly, and I think one goal out of five minutes for us was a win,” Marchessault said. “We battled through adversity and just kept going.”