Over the course of their playoff history, the Capitals have been on the wrong end of many heartbreaking moments. If this postseason is about exorcising the demons of the past, they took another step towards doing so in the first period of Game 4 on Monday.
With the score knotted at zero in the first period, it looked like James Neal was going to put the Vegas Golden Knights ahead on the power play. A pass from Tomas Tatar to Erik Haula to Neal gave Neal the puck on his stick with a wide open net to shoot at.
And he hit the post.
“We obviously got some breaks at the start of the game,” Braden Holtby said after the game. “To be honest, I thought it was in (from) my angle, and somehow it didn't go in.”
“Nine times out of 10 you probably put that in the back of the net,” Neal said. “It’s like I had the composure to wait, and then you shoot it, and you’re like oh, and the way it hit the post and still came out, I mean it’s … I don’t know, it’s tough.”
Disbelief filled the arena following the play.
Had Braden Holtby somehow managed another spectacular save? That was the only explanation. No one could have simply missed the net in the Stanley Cup Final with an opportunity that wide open.
Replay, however, showed it was just a missed shot by Neal, nothing more.
“I hit the post,” Neal said. “It probably changes the game. It’s probably a different game after that. We get the first one. It’s tough. It’s a great play. It’s a great play. Tatar passes it over to Haula, and he finds me backdoor, and I had a wide-open net, and then I just hit the post.
“Definitely one I want to have back.”
It may have come in the first period, but that miss proved to be the turning point of the game. Rather than trailing 1-0, the Caps erupted for three goals to close out the first period with a 3-0 lead.
“When guy miss the empty net or goalie made a great save, it always give you positive emotion,” Evgeny Kuznetsov said. “You kind of have a little bit wake-up call. You think hey we gotta move puck and that's probably the biggest thing in the first period.”
“We were doing the right things,” Neal said, “Just a couple of bounces, and the one that I had there, you score, and then you get momentum, it changes where you’re going. Then they go on the power play and they bury 1-0, and it’s 1-0 them.”
Vegas was able to cut the deficit to two goals in the third period, but that would be the closest they would come in what ended up being a 6-2 defeat.
Neal’s goal was a moment reminiscent of the Caps’ own empty net miss by Esa Tikkanen 20 years ago and just one more demon exorcised in the team’s incredible postseason run as they continue to show that yes, this year is different.