LOS ANGELES — So where did James Neal pick up that little dance move that will be replicated in clubs from the MGM Grand to the Mirage?
“My little brother taught me,” Neal said.
He shook his head and laughed.
Neal actually has three little brothers, all of whom played high-level hockey. His team, the doggedly unbelievable Vegas Golden Knights, was supposed to be the 31st brother at the NHL table this year.
They feasted on the Pacific Division in the regular season, but then you started hearing that the playoffs would be different, that when one of the NHL’s traditional behemoths actually got a chance to break down the Knights on tape and play them in a best-of-seven, this desert flower would rot in the sun.
Instead, Vegas leads the Kings 3-0 after this 3-2, Game 3 victory at Staples Center Sunday night. It doesn’t appear the Knights are going to need seven to prove they’re the best.
The Kings came off the top rope repeatedly when Game 3 began, confident that they could rock the Knights into the shadows, fortified by the end of Drew Doughty’s suspension and the return of Jake Muzzin beside him.
They got a first-period goal from Alex Iafallo after Dustin Brown dug out a loose puck and gave it to Anze Kopitar, who found Iafallo at the opposite post.
They bounced the Knights all over the chessboard, with Adrian Kempe landing on top of John Merrill and not letting him up until he got a 3-count.
Then, at the end of the second period, they killed a delay-of-game penalty and got a whistle on Vegas with 1.1 seconds left. Doughty ruffled Jonathan Marchessault’s feathers and then got a return whack of the stick that sent Marchessault to the box.
Playing the big-brother role, Doughty looked at Marchessault and pointed at his own brain.
“The referee always sees the second one,” said Gerard Gallant, the imminent NHL coach of the year. “It was the type of thing the Kings were doing all night. I didn’t feel good about being down 1-0. It probably should have been more.”
It wasn’t, because goalie Marc-Andre Fleury kept stopping the Kings’ drives and because the L.A. crease pressure was only occasional. Slowly the Knights lifted themselves back into the game.
They always do this because they’re neither as thin nor as young as expansion teams usually are, because they slowly keep the pot boiling as the game goes on. When special team situations happen, they don’t’ burn out their top players because they’re all first among equals. When they play a double-overtime game on a Friday night, they’re able to take care of the final minutes on Sunday night.
“I knew I had to make sure I did a lot of things I don’t normally do,” said defenseman Nate Schmidt. “I had to get the rest, had to drink the beet juice, get in the cold tub. All the extra stuff, we had to do that. It showed our resiliency in the third period. It’s the type of team I want to be a part of.
“That third period was one of the best you could possibly play. We told ourselves between periods that you know you’re going to face adversity in the playoffs. You never go into a game thinking you’re going to be down 1-0, but there’s no way you can get around something like that in the playoffs. I thought we did a good job for the most part, staying away from all the crap.”
Not that the Knights got an A in deportment. The Kings and their fans have only begun to complain about the butt end of Eric Haula’s stick, which hit Kopitar in the chops and knocked him out of the game for a few shifts. No call was forthcoming.
But the Knights gradually turned up the speed on the treadmill until Ryan Carpenter fetched a puck and got it to Cody Eakin, who fired it over Jonathan Quick’s shoulder, punishing the Kings’ 70s line for failing to get it cleared.
Eight minutes after that, Schmidt gunned the puck up the ice to Neal on the right wall. Neal is 30, with significant tours of duty in Dallas, Pittsburgh and Nashville, a guy with 83 playoff games and 26 playoff goals now, a power-play sniper with some meanness to his game.
Oscar Fantenberg was the defenseman at Neal’s hip. Neal faked toward the ice, got Fantenberg to lean, and then slipped by him on the outside and shot the puck before Quick could set himself.
“I think he surprised the goalie with that shot,” Gallant said.
“Our goalie kept us in the game, but he’s done that all year, he’s done it for his career,” said Neal, who played with Fleury in Pittsburgh. “He’s been our backbone all year. And then it was a good play by Schmidty, pushing the D back and creating a gap.”
The mental damage from that goal could be measured 21 seconds later, when Hart Trophy candidate William Karlsson – yes, the ex-Duck who was traded to Columbus for James Wisniewski – scored yet again.
Down 3-1, Kopitar tipped a shot by Fantenberg past Fleury with 2:04 left. Another year, another time, another opponent, maybe the Kings get another one and usher in overtime.
Instead, Schmidt and Marchessault made composed, positional plays to clear pucks. Fleury was not pressured again.
The Kings are down to one lifeline, with Game 4 coming on Tuesday.
“From my point of view, this team has had resilience all year,” said John Stevens, the Kings coach.
Who knew they’d need resilience against a team that was just names on a computer printout 12 months ago? Nothing is more annoying than Little Brother, especially when he makes you look up.
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