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Golden Knights frustrated by slow start after loss to Capitals

Finding it hard to recapture magic of last season following third defeat in four games

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Four games into this season, the Vegas Golden Knights find themselves torn between wanting to turn the page on last season and trying to recapture the winning formula that helped them make last season so special.

A 5-2 loss to the Washington Capitals in a rematch of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final at Capital One Arena on Wednesday didn't bring any resolution to that dilemma. If anything, it served as both a painful reminder of how last season ended, and that repeating what they did last season is going to be difficult.

"It's tough," Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant said. "It's a battle every game, and early in the season sometimes you're making mistakes that you don't usually make when you get going. But, overall, it's a battle."

 

[RELATED: Kuznetsov carries Capitals past Golden Knights | All Golden Knights vs. Capitals highlights]

 

Every game has been one so far for the Golden Knights. In going 1-3-0 in their first four games they have yet to score more than two goals. Their lone victory was a 2-1 shootout win at the Minnesota Wild on Saturday. 

That win began a five-game road trip that continues against the Pittsburgh Penguins at PPG Paints Arena on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; SN1, SNE, SNO, ATTSN-PT, ATTSN-RM, NHL.TV) and concludes against the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday.

Going 1-2-0 in the first three games of the trip wasn't what the Golden Knights had in mind when they left Las Vegas.

"It's a long year and we have to figure out things quick," defenseman Shea Theodore said. "Our goal is from this road trip you want to be a .500 team, and when we're playing like this that's not going to happen. We definitely have to work some things out and find our game."

Everything went so smoothly for the Golden Knights at the start of their inaugural season a year ago when they won eight of their first nine games. Although they went through a 1-4-1 slide after that, when goaltenders Marc-Andre Fleury and Malcolm Subban were each sidelined with injuries, they quickly recovered and went on to set NHL records for an expansion team with 51 wins and 109 points, eight points ahead of the Anaheim Ducks for first place in the Pacific Division.

Video: Tanguay, Reid on the rough start for Golden Knights

Their improbable ride continued in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, when they lost three games on their way to becoming the first expansion team since the 1967-68 St. Louis Blues to reach the Stanley Cup Final. That, of course, was when they ran into the Capitals, who won four in row following a 6-4 loss in Game 1 to take the series in five games and end the Golden Knights' Cup dreams.

That was also the first time they lost more than three in a row all season. Before they lost 5-2 to Philadelphia in the opener this season, they had never had a losing record.

So this slow start is a new kind of adversity.

"It's early, but still we haven't played the way we wanted to consistently every night," Fleury said. "That said, I think tonight was better a little bit, but we've got to keep making progress to be where we want to be."

Fleury was one of the few Golden Knights who said he was looking forward to getting another shot at the Capitals. In contrast, one of Gallant's pregame messages was about moving on from last season and worrying about this one.

"Last year was awesome, the Stanley Cup [Final] was awesome, but it's all about trying to get points now," Gallant said.

The Golden Knights have mostly the same team, but there were a few significant changes. Forwards James Neal (Calgary Flames) and David Perron (St. Louis Blues), and defenseman Luca Sbisa (New York Islanders) left as unrestricted free agents, and Vegas signed center Paul Stastny and defenseman Nick Holden as unrestricted free agents and acquired forward Max Pacioretty in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens. 

Stastny sat out Wednesday and will be sidelined for at least two more games with a lower-body injury. The Golden Knights continued to play without puck-moving defenseman Nate Schmidt, who was suspended for the first 20 games of the regular season for violating the terms of the NHL/NHLPA Performance Enhancing Substances Program.

Schmidt's absence has been noticeable and was again Wednesday with the defensive zone breakdowns that led to goals. The Golden Knights did some good things and controlled play for stretches, but made enough mistakes to lose on a night when Washington's Evgeny Kuznetsov was dominant in a four-point performance (one goal, three assists), Alex Ovechkin scored two goals and goaltender Braden Holtby made 29 saves. 

Video: VGK@WSH: Smith taps in Holden's pass

It didn't help that the Golden Knights went 0-for-3 on the power play, and are 0-for-11 on the season, while the Capitals went 2-for-4 with the man-advantage. Vegas didn't get any puck luck either, with Ryan Carpenter, William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Colin Miller hitting the post on quality scoring chances.

Throw in a disallowed Pacioretty goal with 6:11 remaining in the third period that would have trimmed the Capitals' lead to 4-3, which was negated after a coach's challenge because Pacioretty was offside, and the Golden Knights' frustration is understandable. Although it's only been four games, they feel an urgency to turn things around quickly.

"The quicker the better," center Cody Eakin said. "You want to get the wins early. You don't want to be chasing come all-star break or the trade deadline, so we'll get back to work tomorrow and go from there."

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