LAS VEGAS — Follow the sound of laughter in the Golden Knights’ locker room and it usually leads you to Alec Martinez.
The 14-year NHL veteran may not have a letter stitched on the front of his jersey, but he is one of the team’s most important leaders. His 763 regular season games, 118 playoff games, and two Stanley Cup championships provide a wealth of knowledge for his teammates to draw on.
More than anything, he knows how to keep things light.
On the morning of Game 4 of the Western Conference finals Thursday in Dallas, Martinez was in the locker room cracking jokes about his age, telling young Keegan Kolesar that he learned about cave paintings when he was in kindergarten.
The 35-year-old is sarcastic and witty. His deadpan expression can make it hard to tell if he’s serious or not, but it’s safer to assume he’s always joking. It’s a unique form of leadership, but one that fits perfectly in the room of the Golden Knights.
“There is a lot of good leadership in that room. Guys that have won before,” said captain Mark Stone, referring to the five players with Cup rings: Martinez, Alex Pietrangelo, Chandler Stephenson, Phil Kessel and Ivan Barbashev. “There are a lot of guys who have won before that guys like us can rely on for help, assistance and guidance.”
Now is a good time to put that guidance into action. The Golden Knights have played excellent hockey of late, winning five straight before an overtime loss to Dallas in Game 4. They raced to a 3-0 series lead at the All-Star. Now, after just one loss, the pressure could easily be back on his shoulders, starting with Game 5 on Saturday in Las Vegas.
Only four teams in NHL history have come back from a 3-0 series deficit. With every win Dallas wins to get closer to that, the pressure will mount on the Golden Knights to close it out. That is where Martínez and his vast experience can pay off.
Martínez played on the last team to accomplish the feat. His Los Angeles Kings erased a 3-0 deficit in the first round of the 2014 playoffs, winning four in a row to defeat the San Jose Sharks. Interestingly, Stars forward Joe Pavelski was also on the opposite side in that series.
“They’re not fun when you’re on the other side,” Pavelski said Thursday night. “There was one where we led Detroit 3-0. Thinking about it, you saw how focused that team got. All the discs went in. All shots were directed at the net. There was a heightened sense of urgency. The one in LA, you never think it could happen. You don’t want to be in those situations, but when you’re on the other side, you understand what can happen. It has happened before.
On Friday morning, Martinez said he wasn’t sure how much the experience of overcoming a 3-0 deficit could benefit him or the Golden Knights in this situation, but he feels a lot of other experiences could help.
“I think just general experience,” he said. “I would probably rely on the experience of being up 3-0 before and not shutting out a team in that Game 4.”
Martinez prefers to draw on his experience in this exact situation, and it’s not surprising considering the prime of his hockey life came in similar circumstances. In the same season as the 3-0 comeback, the Kings faced the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup Final.
As in the current series with Dallas, Martinez’s team won the first two games in overtime. The Kings failed to close out the series in Game 4 at Madison Square Garden, forcing Game 5 in Los Angeles. That match doubled down in overtime, when Martinez scored the decisive Cup goal, he tossed his gloves into the air and waved his hands in mind-boggling excitement.
It was the biggest play of Martinez’s career, but it wasn’t the only similar experience to profit from. In 2012, the first playoff run of his NHL career, the Kings took a 3–0 lead in each of their four playoff series. Only once have they completed the sweep, in the second round against St. Louis. The Kings needed a fifth game to eliminate Vancouver (in the first round) and Phoenix (in the conference finals) and a sixth game to win the Stanley Cup against New Jersey.
“The fourth (victory) is the hardest to get,” Martinez said. “(Dallas is) a very good team. They played a very good game of hockey and made it extremely difficult for us to win that game (Tuesday). That said, we were just a shot away.”
Martinez even has experience in this situation during his time in Las Vegas. In the first round of the 2020 playoffs, the Golden Knights took a 3-0 lead over Chicago before losing Game 4. They immediately rebounded with a 4-3 victory in Game 5 to end the series.
Throughout his career, Martínez has faced this same situation on five different occasions. His teams are 4-1 in Game 5, with the only loss coming in 2014 against New Jersey. That series was eerily similar to the current series against Dallas, with Martinez’s team winning the first two games in overtime, then the third game in a 4-0 blowout. The Devils rebounded with two straight wins to force a Game 6, in which Martinez and the Kings won to lift the Cup at home.
All of those experiences give Martinez a great perspective. He understands that while Vegas would have loved to shut down the Stars on Thursday, losses are going to happen and you can’t let them affect your performance going forward.
“It’s playoff hockey and it’s also the Dallas Stars,” he said Friday. “I don’t think anyone anticipated that someone would be swept off either side of things. This is playoff hockey. The blows are thrown in one direction and then reciprocate. They had a good night (Thursday), and it’s up to us to come back (Saturday) and be ready, play our A game and try to dictate our pace at home.”
The Golden Knights have played well in close games. Thursday’s 3-2 overtime loss at Dallas was their first loss this postseason, after eliminating the Jets and Oilers in their first opportunities.
“We’ll have the mindset that we want to finish it again,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “We just need to get the little things right to get it done, and we need to be on time with them.”
Vegas struggled to get out of the gate in Game 4, losing the battle for possession for much of the first 40 minutes. The team found their legs and rhythm in the third period and had several chances to win the game were it not for some great saves by Stars goaltender Jake Oettinger. Cassidy and the Las Vegas players expect the level of execution and intensity to be there from the opening disc launch Saturday night at T-Mobile Arena.
A trip to the Stanley Cup Final is on the line. The Clarence S. Campbell Bowl will be in the building. Even up 3-1 in the series, the pressure is on the Golden Knights. Fortunately for them, there’s plenty of calm, perspective and comedy in the room from veterans like Martinez.
“In terms of our approach to the game, it’s finding that balance between knowing what’s at stake and also approaching it like another playoff game,” he said. “You better focus on the process, knowing that if you play a good game, you play a good 60 (minutes), if you stick to your game, the end result will take care of itself.”
(Alec Martinez Photo: Stephen R. Sylvanie / USA Today)