LAS VEGAS -- Another season that began with expectations of winning a Stanley Cup concluded with a bitter taste for the Vegas Golden Knights.
The surprising Montreal Canadiens, who finished the regular season 18th in the NHL with 59 points, won the best-of-seven series 4-2 to advance to the Stanley Cup Final for an NHL-best 35th time in franchise history.
The Golden Knights were playing in their third semifinal in four seasons of existence but lost in the same round for the second consecutive year -- and in nearly the same fashion.
"This is probably the best team that we're ever gonna play on," Vegas forward Reilly Smith said. "Our players just have to be better and I think we expect that from each and every one of us."
Vegas' stagnant offense scored just nine goals after winning the series opener against Montreal 4-1. Much like the Dallas Stars did in 2020 in the Edmonton bubble, the Canadiens' defense smothered a Golden Knights offense that ranked third during the regular season with 3.39 goals per game, averaged 3.07 in the first two rounds, then sputtered with 2.16 per contest against Montreal.
"I can praise them all I want, but ultimately it falls down on myself, and the top players on this team," said Vegas captain Mark Stone, who finished with no points and just seven shots in the series. "We had some guys produce night-in, night-out. But as far as myself, and a number of other guys, I mean I got skunked this series, that can't happen.
"I'm the captain of this team, the leader of this team. Take a lot of responsibility for what just occurred."
Stone finished the postseason with just eight points (five goals, three assists) and went without a point over the final seven games of the playoffs.
But as coach Peter DeBoer inferred shortly after Thursday's game, Stone isn't the only one to blame.
Vegas' forwards accounted for only four of the 13 goals scored in six games against Montreal.
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury's mishandling of the puck with less than two minutes left in Game 3 with the Golden Knights leading 2-1 led to a game-tying goal and the Canadiens eventually winning in overtime.
The power play, or lack thereof, went 0-for-17 in the series, and finished 4-for-43 in the postseason.
"I think everybody's got to look in the mirror, obviously coaches included," DeBoer said. "I think everything is on the table. We gotta look at everything. We've gotta look at what we can do different from a coaching perspective, we've gotta look at our personnel. I think everything is on the table."
Vegas' offensive drought was not indicative of a roster that was built to score goals by dominating in the offensive zone. DeBoer might find himself playing with a new deck dealt by team president George McPhee and general manager Kelly McCrimmon if they decide to shop any of their top nine forwards and possibly enter the Jack Eichel sweepstakes.
Vegas' power play was bad during the regular season, ranking 22nd with a 17.8% conversion rate. It was abysmal in the postseason, ranking last at 9.3%. It has to be one of the first things DeBoer addresses in the offseason.
Last summer's failed attempt to move Fleury and his $7 million-per-year contract turned out to be a good thing, as the 36-year-old turned in a Vezina Trophy-worthy season. But moving forward, with a younger and capable Robin Lehner seemingly in place to take over, Fleury's salary could help strengthen the Golden Knights' center depth, something they showed a need for down the stretch.
Cody Glass, the first-ever draft selection in Golden Knights franchise history, played in one game during the postseason after appearing in 27 during the regular season. Glass was taken sixth overall in the 2017 draft, seven selections higher than Nick Suzuki, whom Vegas took 13th and who was part of the deal that brought in Max Pacioretty and who shined for the Canadiens in the semifinals. But Glass didn't appear to be part of DeBoer's system and could also be packaged into a deal to land a more established center.
Defenseman Alec Martinez and forwards Tomas Nosek and Mattias Janmark are unrestricted free agents. The Golden Knights acquired Janmark in a trade this year. Martinez will be the tricky option, considering other teams will likely target him with attractive offers, while Nosek and Janmark could be skating elsewhere next season.