LAS VEGAS -- When they won Game 1 of this series, the Vegas Golden Knights were 13-3 in the playoffs and looked like they were on a roll for the ages.
Three losses later, they're on the verge of elimination. The Washington Capitals can win the first Stanley Cup in their history at Vegas' expense in Game 5 of the final Thursday in T-Mobile Arena.
The Golden Knights have winning streaks of five and four games in this postseason, the latter coming after they dropped the opener of the West final in Winnipeg. They need to win three straight to steal this series and become the first expansion team to win the Cup in its inaugural season.
"This is something this group really and truly believes it can do," defenseman Nate Schmidt said after practice Wednesday at City National Arena in the Summerlin section of the city. "This group has been great all year. There's nothing more than I would want to do it with this group. We've been through a lot with this city and it's just going to take one to change the momentum in the series."
Several Vegas players mentioned how well they played in the first period of Game 4 as something they can grasp heading into Game 5. Erik Haula's deflection in the first 90 seconds hit the post, and James Neal flubbed a shot into a wide-open net off a post as well. Shots on goal were 11-11 in the opening 20 minutes, but the Caps had a 3-0 lead.
"Most of the first period I thought we were going great. It was 3-0 and it sure didn't feel like it," Haula said Wednesday. "It was a good collective effort. We were really ready to go and I thought we had great chances. Our intensity was great and that's what we have to bring. We're not going anyway. We just have to bring our best effort and win one game."
"That's the way we have to play in order to give ourselves a chance," Schmidt said. "They capitalized on their opportunities in the first period, but you go back and look at chances and you think we were right there. Hopefully we have a chance to play the same way and I would take it. We got our feet moving, got our groove, we were rolling over (the lines), didn't take any penalties and got ourselves into the game a lot better."
The Golden Knights are aware of the weight of history, that the team with a 3-1 lead has won the Cup final 31 straight times dating to Toronto's comeback over Detroit in 1942. They' taking a piecemeal approach to the task.
"You can't win three if you don't win the first one," Haula said. "It starts with that."
Does goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury need to steal a game for the Golden Knights? Perhaps. But he surely needs to be better than he's been so far. The Capitals have 18 goals and are trying to become the first team since the 1982 Islanders to score three or more in every Cup Final game.
Fleury has a 4.09 goals-against average and .816 save percentage in the series -- after entering the final at 1.68 and .947 for the first three rounds of the playoffs.
"When you watch the tape back ... and look at the goals there's not a whole lot he can do," coach Gerard Gallant said of the 6-2 loss in Game 4. "I wish I could say Fleury hasn't played well. He's played good hockey. He's a good goalie and we have to play better defense around him."
A capacity crowd of 600 filled the rink for practice, just has been the case all playoffs. A couple hundred more looked in from the windows of the concourse to watch.
Reminded this was a Wednesday morning and not some weekend where people can easily get out of work, Schmidt smiled and said, "Every night is Saturday night in Vegas."
— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) June 6, 2018
— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) June 6, 2018
There were some eyebrows raised at practice when first-line center William Karlsson was missing and Gallant said it was an optional that Karlsson opted to sit out. Of course, he was the only player missing so that explanation doesn't wash.
"He just thought the best thing for him was that I'm going to take today off," Gallant said. "He'll be fine tomorrow."
There is some chatter that winger William Carrier, the player selected from the Sabres in the expansion draft, could get back into the lineup for Game 5. Carrier has not played since Game 5 of the second round against San Jose due to an undisclosed injury and has essentially lost his spot on the fourth line to Ryan Reaves. Ryan Carpenter's spot in the lineup would seem to be the most vulnerable if the Golden Knights choose to go with Carrier.
"What you see with Will Carrier is that he's a fast guy, a heavy guy who skates really well and goes hard to the net," Gallant said. " He's played some good hockey for us and if we decide to put him in the lineup for us, that's what he can do."
Carrier has appeared in nine playoff games this season without notching a point. He had one goal and two assists in 37 games in the regular season.