Sunday, June 11, 2023 | 2 a.m.
Sunrise, Fla. —
The fists and plastic rats flew as the final horn sounded Saturday night at FLA Live Arena to signal the end of Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final. Both were aimed towards the Golden Knights’ heads.
As well as Vegas had shown restraint against Florida’s dirty tactics, and sometimes even literally laughed them off, throughout the series, the Golden Knights chose to protect themselves in this instance. They were going to stand their ground in a skirmish that developed right in front of, and swallowed up, goalie Adin Hill.
It was a fitting end to the Golden Knights’ most intense game this season considering their determination at the net front is what led them to a 3-2 victory and one win away from lifting the Stanley Cup. They’ll have a chance to vanquish the Panthers in Game 5 of the Cup Final at 5 p.m. Tuesday at T-Mobile Arena.
If they repeat the toughness and determination they showed in fending off a barrage of shots over the final 2:30 of game time Saturday after the Panthers pulled goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, they’ll be celebrating at home.
“Guys just sold out to get it done,” captain Mark Stone said after Game 4. “We did a great job of making sure we held the line pretty well. We chipped pucks out when we needed to, we got clears and kept it outside to really compact the net front and did a good job making sure nothing really got around the net, not like last game.”
The win tasted all the sweeter to the Golden Knights because of the way they prevailed in direct contrast to how they fared in the same situation in Game 3. The Panthers subbed out Bobrvosky for an extra skater at almost the exact same time on the clock Thursday night, and they scored within seconds when Matthew Tkachuk was left uncovered in front of the net for a put-back goal.
The Golden Knights didn’t feel like they played a bad game overall in Game 3, but coach Bruce Cassidy had two main gripes — That they failed in 5-on-6 play and weren’t strong enough in front of the net for both Tkachuk’s goal and Carter Verhaeghe’s overtime winner.
The criticism turned to cheers on Saturday.
“At the end, I wasn’t thinking, ‘Here we go again,’” Cassidy said in his postgame news conference. “We just went through it and one thing our team does well is we respond to adversity, or whatever hasn’t gone well, and we’ve found a way to keep it out of our net. I don’t know if they had any Grade-As. They threw a few towards our net but I think we did a good job clearing them.”
Hill was only forced to make one save over the first two minutes of the onslaught, when Tkachuk fired a puck through traffic. But then the final attempted clear went awry.
Top defenseman Alex Pietrangelo flung the puck over the glass, picking up a delay of game penalty to give Florida a 6-on-4 opportunity with 17 seconds to play.
Defensemen Zach Whitecloud and Brayden McNabb both blocked shots in the final sequence, with Hill turning away an attempt from Verhaeghe to end the game and start the brawl.
“I was just battling trying to find the puck and I guess there was a little mayhem after the buzzer there,” Hill said. “But everyone on the ice there on our side did everything we could to keep the puck out of the net.”
The big-time blocks weren’t only at the end. Hill shouted out defenseman Alec Martinez for facing “a full slap shot, and taking it like a man” earlier in the third period.
Vegas finished with 30 blocks. The Golden Knights technically had one more on Thursday, but most of them came earlier in the game.
They weren’t in the right spots in the crucial moments at the end. And they weren’t going to let that happen again.
“You learn from those situations,” Pietrangelo said. “Is it always going to be perfect? No, last game, we gave up one…but you put that behind you and you move on to the next situation. That’s what we did.”
It wasn’t only on defense that the Golden Knights strengthened on the inside. Cassidy thought the offense also could have been better in the middle and around the crease after Game 3.
Of course, the Golden Knights fixed it in Game 4.
Second-line center Chandler Stephenson was a slot machine, cashing in on a pair of goals right down the center of the ice in the opening period and a half to put the Golden Knights up 2-0. Then, from a similar spot, defenseman Nic Hague set up forward William Karlsson for a close-range snipe for a 3-0 advantage.
Vegas was so money up front that they scored the fourth goal too. Only problem was that it was for Florida.
With the Golden Knights packed in, a routine puck fling by Panthers defenseman Brandon Montour ricocheted off both McNabb’s skate and defenseman Shea Theodore’s ankle before finding the net.
“We got an unfortunate bounce there for them to get that one,” Hill said. “But when we’re rolling like that, we’re the best team in the league.”
There can be no debate about that with one more victory. T-Mobile Arena will be rocking like never before considering the series-clinching possibility.
If the notoriously thumping musical selections include Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle” like they have sometimes in the past, the song should probably be cranked up a couple more decibels. Resilient dominance in the middle and front of the ice is what’s delivered the Golden Knights’ playoff ride to within one victory of what they’ve been calling “the ultimate prize.”
“The buzzer goes off and I felt my helmet get ripped off and they have six guys on the ice and we have four, so get in there and try to help out my teammates,” Hill described the endgame situation. “I don’t know if there’s really a message to be sent. We’re just getting ready for Tuesday.”