Monday, May 29, 2023 | 10:49 p.m.
DALLAS — Jonathan Marchessault had a feeling.
“We’re going to come out here and play one of our best road games,” Marchessault said following morning skate on Monday.
What transpired for three hours at American Airlines Center on Monday night wasn’t just one of the best road games for the Golden Knights — it might have been their best game all season. And it happened at the perfect time in a 6-0 win over the Stars in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final, with Vegas going to the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in franchise history.
The Golden Knights will face the Florida Panthers for hockey’s biggest prize. Game 1 is in Vegas on Saturday (5 p.m., TNT).
“I just knew we were going to show up tonight and give a good battle,” Marchessault said after the game. “I thought we played, from the drop of the puck … I think everyone’s brain was turned on tonight.”
It’s difficult to say a team can play a perfect game from start to finish, let alone in the playoffs. One bad bounce could end a shutout, or a defensive lapse could turn a great night into something less. But there are instances far and few between that could be classified as flawless.
The 60-minute effort the Golden Knights put together could fit into that category.
The Stars turned a 3-0 series deficit into 3-2 in the blink of an eye. What looked like a surefire sweep suddenly turned into one surefire thought: If the Golden Knights lost this game and had to go back to Las Vegas for a Game 7, against their former coach Pete DeBoer who has never lost a Game 7, the pressure would be astronomical.
But the Golden Knights have been one of the best road teams all season. They were tied with the New Jersey Devils for 60 points earned away from home, trailing only the Boston Bruins (64).
How they got to that point is by believing in their depth as a four-line team with three reliable defense pairings. It didn’t take long for the Golden Knights to find their game when William Carrier opened the scoring at 3:41 of the opening period, the beginning of a three-goal first period.
Coach Bruce Cassidy went back to the line combinations that put Vegas at its best. He moved Nic Roy back to fourth-line center in-between Carrier and Keegan Kolesar. That trio has been the best fourth-line combination all season. Following William Karlsson’s first of two goals on the night — a power-play tally at 10:25 for a 2-0 lead — the fourth line got rewarded again when Kolesar made it 3-0 at 14:00.
“We knew exactly what we wanted to bring right off the bat,” Carrier said. “Good for us to get those goals.”
Much like Game 3, it was a dominant first 20 minutes. The biggest difference was Stars captain Jamie Benn — who returned after serving a two-game suspension — didn’t get tossed this game. The Stars operated at full strength and still looked overwhelmed.
Vegas’ breakouts and zone entries were also near flawless. Puck movement was at its best. The postgame numbers say the Golden Knights had 11 giveaways, but it didn’t look like it.
Even when shot volume was toned down in the final two periods, the Golden Knights still made the most of their chances. Marchessault’s goal was on Vegas’ first shot of the second period at 10:25, pushing the lead to 4-0. Karlsson’s second goal and Michael Amadio’s goal in the third period was the last bit of what the Golden Knights needed.
That was more than enough for Adin Hill to record his second shutout of the series with 23 saves, pushing the Golden Knights’ record to 12-5 in the postseason.
“Boy, if we can bottle that going forward, we’ll be a tough team to beat,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “Guys responded well to a little adversity. Great start, and we just kept going from there.”
Even after losing the last two games, the Golden Knights never seemed too worried. Though Dallas coach Pete DeBoer felt the pressure was squarely on the road team, it never showed.
The only pressure was winning one more game to reach the Stanley Cup Final, and that wave of momentum still rested with Vegas. Once Kolesar scored the third goal, that’s when Vegas felt the life was taken out of Dallas.
“But at 3-0 end of the first, you still have to push,” captain Mark Stone said. “When Marchessault got that fourth one, then you start to feel, ‘OK, we’re playing a really good game here.'”
That performance was a loud reminder of why the Golden Knights earned the top seed in the Western Conference, and how they battled to earn home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs. Even DeBoer felt that.
“I think they played a perfect elimination game,” said DeBoer, the former Golden Knights coach the previous three seasons, adding that there are many in the Vegas locker room he hopes wins the Stanley Cup.
Because of that, there will be a Stanley Cup Final game played at T-Mobile Arena for the first time since 2018, when the Golden Knights took the sports world by storm and came within three wins of the Stanley Cup in their inaugural season.
Only six players — Carrier, Karlsson, Marchessault, Reilly Smith, Brayden McNabb and Shea Theodore — were part of the on-ice roster in that five-game loss to the Washington Capitals. Karlsson called that year a whirlwind. It was a moment of “we’re happy to be here” that ultimately caught up with Vegas.
Now, six years in, it’s a veteran group that has learned to lose before it’s allowed to win — the seven-game collapse in 2019 against San Jose; losing to Dallas in the 2020 conference final; falling flat in 2021 against Montreal; missing the playoffs for the first time last season. All of that has led to one more shot at the Cup.
“It’s mostly been ups for this team,” Cassidy said of those that have been here since Year 1. “We had an honest conversation last night about what’s in front of us. It’s OK to dream a little bit of once we get that fourth win, what’s in front of us and what prevented them from doing it the previous years.
“We took another step and we got through this to the final. Now, the conversation becomes it’s about finishing the job.”
They’ve reached the final boss stage, and it’s an unexpected one. It’s a team that didn’t make the playoffs until the final day of the regular season. The Panthers were down 3-1 to the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Boston Bruins in the first round but rallied to win in seven games. Then won in five games against Toronto in the second round, and swept the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final.
Florida is riding high with the MVP-level play of forward Matthew Tkachuk and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. The Panthers have lost just one game since going down 3-1 to the best regular season team ever.
The Panthers can attest that just getting to the dance is the first step. The Golden Knights will be their partner on the floor. There will be a first-time champion crowned in two weeks’ time.
And the Golden Knights understand the job isn’t done.
“It’s a great accomplishment to be the best team in the Western Conference, but we want to be the best team in the league,” Stone said. “We’ve got to get ready to play the Florida Panthers. This is a great achievement, but we want the Stanley Cup.”