Saturday, June 10, 2023 | 2 a.m.
Sunrise, Fla. —
The Vegas Golden Knights didn’t play poorly despite a 3-2 overtime loss to the Florida Panthers in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, and therefore they don’t plan to change much ahead of tonight’s Game 4.
That’s been the team’s philosophy all year, and considering it got them 133 seconds away from a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven championship series on Thursday night, there’s no reason to move away from it now. The Golden Knights still lead the Panthers 2-1 overall heading into a pivotal showdown at 5 p.m. PDT today at FLA Live Arena.
“They’ll certainly enjoy it and they should,” Golden Knights coach Bruce Cassidy said of the Panthers in his postgame news conference Thursday night. “Win in overtime like that, and you’re back in it, but our job is different than theirs right now, so you learn from it and come back tomorrow.”
Vegas had no practice scheduled for Friday, but the players expected an intense film session to be on tap. That should be enough to address the subtle factors that went wrong in Game 3.
Cassidy has shown an ability to get the most out of his team off a loss considering the Golden Knights dropped two games in a row once in the last two months — in the Western Conference final against the Dallas Stars in which Vegas already had a 3-0 series lead.
Here are five points Cassidy should harp on improving from Game 3 to Game 4.
1. Get off to a faster start
Cassidy warned for days leading up to Game 3 that the Panthers would likely come out buzzing with the series shifting from Las Vegas to South Florida, and that the Golden Knights needed to match their energy.
It still didn’t happen. The puck stayed predominantly in the Panthers’ offensive zone early in the game, and for the second time in the series, Florida took a 1-0 lead.
Cassidy cited Florida putting only five shots on goal in the first period as a reason why he wasn’t alarmed by Vegas’ start, but that’s a misleading number and he might realize it when reviewing the game. The Golden Knights blocked a number of early shots, a strength all season that’s both encouraging and repeatable, but the Panthers were also just inaccurate with several more, which is unlikely carry over to the next game.
Slow starts weren’t a problem in the regular season for Vegas, but they’ve plagued the Golden Knights throughout the postseason. They now amazingly have given up the first goal in 12 of 20 playoff games.
They’ve gone 8-4 in those contests and sit one overall comeback win behind tying the NHL’s playoff record of 10 such victories, but falling into deficits is a habit they need to break.
2. Manage the puck better
Four F-16 fighter jets flew over FLA Live Arena right before puck drop Thursday, and the way they moved kind of resembled the Golden Knights over the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final.
Vegas soared while beating Florida a combined 12-4 in the two games at T-Mobile Arena, often skating circles around the Eastern Conference champions, which wanted to force a slower, dirtier game. The Panthers got their wish in their return home.
The Golden Knights at times looked more like a single-engine propeller plane trying to fly through a Florida thunderstorm rolling in off the coast. They just didn’t move the same way in Game 3 as they did in the first two games, and the biggest reason why is because they couldn’t control the puck the same way they did at T-Mobile.
Several factors probably contributed to such struggles including the first-period sluggishness, poor ice conditions and adjustments made by Florida.
Vegas dealt with its own choppy-ice controversy in Game 1 of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final before T-Mobile Arena crews improved the surface the rest of the way. For the sake of the Golden Knights, let’s hope the FLA Live Arena staff do the same.
But, at the end of the day, as Golden Knights captain Mark Stone pointed out, both teams are dealing with the same elements. Vegas needs to do what it can to execute crisper passes and put up a better fight in puck battles along the wall.
3. Encourage Jack Eichel to be more aggressive
It’s difficult to criticize Eichel considering, if anything, he’s exceeded expectations in his first career playoff appearance by being the Golden Knights’ best two-way player. He’s tied for the team lead in playoff points with Jonathan Marchessault at 23, though that accounts for 17 assists and just six goals.
To be at its best, Vegas needs Eichel to score more the rest of the way. He’s become too comfortable deferring to linemate Marchessault, who has 13 goals and 10 assists, and Eichel passed up a couple open looks in Game 3, including a potential game-winner in overtime.
He might not be the hottest Golden Knight at the moment, but Eichel is the team’s most gifted scorer. They need him to be a little more selfish.
The good news is, he’s shown a willingness to flip that switch when it’s most necessary on a couple occasions throughout the playoffs. He broke the Golden Knights out of offensive slogs both in Game 3 of a first-round series against the Winnipeg Jets and Game 2 of the Western Conference Final versus Dallas.
Vegas didn’t score any five-on-five goals in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, and it should be on Eichel’s shoulders to break the drought early in Game 4.
“Would have liked to have gotten one at the end of the game there to help our team win,” Eichel said after Game 3. “Back to the drawing board, and prepare for the next one.”
4. Adjust to tightening whistle
The on-ice officials let Game 1 get out of hand with the Panthers continually antagonizing and cheap-shotting the Golden Knights. They’ve shown less of a willingness to let anything as much as questionable go ever since.
An astronomical 41 penalties have been called over the last two games including 15 in Game 3 that were mostly of the ticky-tack variety. The Panthers toned down the blatant disregard they showed for the rules in Games 1 and 2, though coach Paul Maurice had conniptions on a couple controversial calls.
Cassidy unsurprisingly kept his cool when the Golden Knights were on the wrong end of the whistle. That must continue.
After the first two games, Vegas players cited composure and discipline as two of the biggest reasons for their lead in the series. That remained in Game 3, where the Golden Knights converted on two of six power-play opportunities to the Panthers’ 0-for-5 mark.
But five penalties are too many to take, even against a scuffling Panthers’ power-play unit, and calm can slip in an instant. The Golden Knights need to get back to the style that made them the least penalized team in the league during the regular season while realizing it may not work out considering how quick the referees have been to insert themselves recently.
“They were calling it with tighter standards tonight,” Cassidy said after Game 3. “You just have to adjust to it, and I thought we were trying to do that.”
5. Repair their 5-on-6 play
Seconds after the Panthers pulled goalie Sergei Bobrovsky at the end of Game 3, they scored with the Golden Knights inexplicably giving star Matthew Tkachuk free reign at the top of the crease to knock in a rebound.
Vegas has looked lost all postseason when opponents throw an extra skater on the ice late, having given up four goals in the situation per naturalstattrick.com. It’s a difficult situation with mounting late-game pressure, to be sure, but it’s also one championship teams must learn how to navigate.
Florida seems to have a decisive edge there, as Tkachuk’s goal was the Panthers’ fourth of the postseason with the goalie pulled for an extra attacker.
There’s a reason the betting market priced this series as a near pick’em: The two teams are extremely even. It’s nearly impossible to foresee a scenario where the Golden Knights have a chance to lift the Stanley Cup without having survived a late 5-on-6 onslaught or two the rest of the series.
“It’s hockey some nights,” Cassidy said after Game 3. “We’ll regroup tomorrow, look at the things we did well and try to correct the stuff to finish the game. That’s where we let ourselves down tonight: We didn’t finish the game.”