Rebecca Blackwell / AP
Thursday, June 8, 2023 | 10:06 p.m.
SUNRISE, FLA. — You wouldn’t think the Golden Knights just let a potential 3-0 series lead in the Stanley Cup Final slip through their fingers upon entering the locker room.
The Vegas leadership group stood front and center trying to assure that everything is fine moments after squandering a late third-period lead, then losing in overtime to allow the Florida Panthers back in the series.
It will be a tough pill to swallow for the night with the Golden Knights two minutes away from a commanding series lead, only for Matthew Tkachuk to tie it in the third and Carter Verhaeghe to send it home in overtime and give the Panthers a 3-2 win in Game 3 of the Cup Final at FLA Live Arena on Thursday night.
Instead of that 3-0 lead, Vegas holds a 2-1 lead now with Game 4 in Sunrise on Saturday (5 p.m., TNT).
“Overall, I thought we played a pretty solid game,” said captain Mark Stone. “It’s the playoffs. You’ve got to bounce back and be ready for the next one.”
Stone is right. Playoff hockey determines two things: Which team is clicking at the right time, and which team can get the bounces to go its way.
The Golden Knights did everything right to prevent those bounces. Even after giving up the game’s first goal to Brandon Montour 4:08 into the game, the Golden Knights’ composure playing on the road has been a strength throughout the playoffs.
They got that response on the power play at 16:03 when Stone scored his first road goal of the playoffs on a deflection from a shot by Jonathan Marchessault, tying it 1-1.
Shot numbers would indicate the Golden Knights were dominated in the opening 20, and giving up the attempts advantage 19-7 to Florida would indicate that. Yet despite Florida controlling the early going with its forecheck and sustained pressure, coach Bruce Cassidy felt they played well in the period sans giving up the opening goal.
“I think we gave up five shots. We figured we might have to chase it a little bit in terms of the energy in the building,” Cassidy said. “There’s a lot to like about our game tonight.”
That momentum carried into the second where Vegas controlled play with its forecheck and continuous denial of zone entries. Though each team had three penalties in the second, the Golden Knights were the ones to capitalize when Jonathan Marchessault scored his 13th goal of the postseason for a 2-1 Vegas lead.
The Golden Knights played as good of a defensive game as you could want from a road team. They held the Panthers to 17 shots on goal for 57-plus minutes. They had a 31-17 edge in blocked shots. Vegas took away nearly every inch of room in the middle of the ice to limit high-danger chances for Florida.
One of two things were going to happen, given the trajectory of the Golden Knights’ postseason run: Either they would score that third goal, improve to 15-0 in the playoffs when scoring three goals, or find a way to let it go. The middle ground is nonexistent.
When Tkachuk tied it 2-2 with 2:13 remaining with the extra attacker after pulling Sergei Bobrovsky, the narrative continued.
Tkachuk was likely laboring throughout the game. He didn’t play the last 12 minutes of the first after a hit by Keegan Kolesar prompted the NHL’s concussion spotters to check him out, Panthers coach Paul Maurice confirmed after the game. Tkachuk didn’t even start the second period, only to appear a few minutes later.
The Panthers weren’t going to get back into the Cup Final without Tkachuk, who has spent more time off the ice and in the penalty box than making an impact on it. With his 11th goal of the playoffs, Tkachuk made his presence felt in a good way for the Panthers.
“It’s not always going to be perfect,” defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. “It was a good push by them. We would’ve loved to win that. I thought we did a lot of good things throughout the game. We didn’t start great, but we got to our game as the game progressed.”
Verhaeghe’s shot 4:27 into overtime was a product of the Golden Knights allowing too much center ice and Verhaeghe getting a good look. Tkachuk was in front, but he claims he didn’t set the screen to shield Adin Hill from the puck beating him.
Yet, after all of that, the Golden Knights still feel comfortable with where they’re at.
“You’re up a goal with two minutes left, but it’s all part of it,” center Jack Eichel said. “I think our mindset shouldn’t change. Every game is the most important game of the season. Just go out there and win the next one. That’s the plan.”
They also attribute to the three posts they hit — including Ivan Barbashev hitting the crossbar on a 2-on-1 late in the third period — signaling the opportunities were there, but just failed to capitalize.
“I hope it leaves a sour taste in your mouth, at least for the night,” Cassidy said. “I hope they’re upset with certain things that transpired, but it’s OK. It’s an emotional game, but not tomorrow. It can’t be tomorrow.”
Even in the rare victory of special teams, it was destined to be the Golden Knights’ night. They went 2 for 5 on the power play and killed all five Panthers power plays to improve to 12 for 12 on the penalty kill this series.
Not even that was good enough to move one win away from the Stanley Cup.
Perhaps that’s why the Golden Knights sent Stone, Pietrangelo and Eichel to speak to a flood of microphones in the locker room. The captain and two former captains all coming to an agreement that they can win Game 4 if they play the same way.
But the Panthers have momentum now. This is a series, and with one more home game upcoming, the underdogs — er, cats — of these playoffs still have a heartbeat.
“This series, we knew it was going to be tough,” Stone said. “They’re a resilient team. You’re going to deal with close games, but we’ll be ready for the next one.”