Golden Knights look to extend series lead in pivotal Game 4 matchup against Panthers

When the Vegas Golden Knights and Florida Panthers take the ice tonight at FLA Live Arena for Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final, the stakes will be sky-high.

Tonight’s matchup could be a critical swing game in deciding the ultimate outcome of the series. A Vegas win would give the Golden Knights a favorable 3-1 edge, while a Florida victory would wipe the slate clean and make this a best-of-three showdown for the greatest trophy in sports.

Both teams have demonstrated an ability to battle through adversity, so this fight won’t be over until it’s truly over. That being said, the significance of tonight’s contest should not be underestimated.

The Panthers enter Game 4 with momentum and confidence after their 3-2 comeback win in overtime in Game 3 on Thursday.

Golden Knights give up late goal, lose 3-2 in OT as Panthers take Game 3 of Stanley Cup Final

The Vegas Golden Knights were 2:13 away from taking a commanding 3-0 series lead over the Florida Panthers in the Stanley Cup Final. But five years and one day after losing Game 5 against Washington, the Golden Knights failed to take advantage of the moment and fell short, falling

The Golden Knights were 2:13 away from taking a commanding 3-0 series lead; instead, they enter Game 4 with that comfortable lead on the line after being on the losing end of a late Panthers rally.

The Golden Knights let a golden opportunity slip through their fingers, while the Panthers have new life following the club’s seventh straight overtime win (7-0) this postseason.

The star players have made their mark. The Conn Smythe Trophy candidates are adding to their resumes. Now, everyone is prepared to leave it all on the ice.

This series has seen a bit of everything: highlight-reel goals, crushing hits, thrilling momentum swings, jaw-dropping saves and a steady stream of endless penalties.

Surprisingly, the Golden Knights have won the special teams battle in all three contests of this series, and it hasn’t been close. Part of that is due to the utter lack of discipline the Panthers have shown through three contests, but the Golden Knights deserve credit for improving the team’s overall greatest weakness headed into the biggest series in franchise history.

That being said, the Golden Knights have advanced through the playoffs by relying on strong 5-on-5 play. Though they were outscored 2-0 at even strength in Game 3, that doesn’t mean they played poorly at 5-on-5.

“We’ve been good defensively,” Alex Pietrangelo said after Game 3. “I don’t think they got a whole lot 5-on-5, so we gotta take that as a positive. Obviously, 6-on-5, would have been nice to get through that. But I think collectively, as a group, we did a pretty good job limiting them at 5-on-5.”

The discrepancy rests primarily on the play of Sergei Bobrovsky, who had by far his best game of the series, turning aside 25 of 27 shots for a .926 save percentage.

He was particularly effective in the second period when Vegas had its best surge of the night. The Golden Knights generated 13 shots, 15 scoring chances and seven high-danger chances against the Panthers netminder in the middle frame, and he took care of everything aside from Jonathan Marchessault’s one-timer off a great feed from Jack Eichel on the power play.

“I thought we generated some chances,” Pietrangelo said. “(Bobrovsky) made some good saves there, especially in the second, one at the end of the first, too. Those were going in the last game, so we’ll bear down a bit here as we look at what we can do better 5-on-5 to create a little bit more next game.”

Mark Stone attributed the difference to a lack of execution.

“We’re playing a really good 5-on-5 game there, weren’t really capitalizing on our chances,” he said.

That’s something the Golden Knights need to address tonight, especially since it prevented them from extending their lead in the third period and taking a 3-0 stranglehold on the series.

The Golden Knights played a relatively conservative third period, maintaining structure, playing sound defense and waiting for opportunities to strike.

“I thought we played smart shutdown hockey in the third period and tried to extend the lead,” Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said. “It’s what we try to do when we have the lead. We don’t want to go in a shell; discipline, take care of the puck, attack when you can. We did. We didn’t finish some plays, and (Florida) did with the goalie out, so give them credit.”

Stone referenced the fact that Vegas hit the post multiple times. The Golden Knights had a particularly strong scoring chance late in the frame on an odd-man rush, but Ivan Barbashev hit the crossbar.

“We had a couple posts there in the third,” Stone said. “We could have put them away, but that’s the playoffs. Now you gotta bounce back and be ready for the next one.”

Though the Golden Knights played well for the majority of the period, the Panthers bested the Golden Knights at 6-on-5, something Vegas has struggled with this postseason. After recording just four shots for most of the frame, Florida had a prime scoring chance in front of the net and then followed it up with two more shots, the second of which led to the equalizer.

“Good players find ways to make plays, and sometimes you don’t need a lot of chances,” Cassidy said. “I guess it was their turn for pucks to go in.”

The takeaway from Game 3 is that the Golden Knights played well enough to win. Obviously, they didn’t, but there weren’t many flaws in their game. As such, the Golden Knights don’t need to change all that much ahead of tonight’s contest.

For one thing, Vegas needs to keep blocking shots.

The Golden Knights have blocked 16, 20 and 31 shots in the first three games of this series, respectively.

That needs to continue.

When Florida was pushing in Game 3, the Golden Knights prevented most of their shot attempts from reaching Adin Hill. At 5-on-5, the Panthers had a combined 39 shot attempts in the first and third periods; only 10 of those made their way past the Vegas defense.

The Golden Knights also need to play well in front of Hill.

“They’re funneling a lot of pucks to the net, and they got guys that are pretty good around netfront,” Brayden McNabb said. “It’s about staying close, as close as you can; a lot of bounces happen in there, and it’s hard to control at times. But for the most part, we’ve done a pretty good job at it, and it’s just an area of the game that we gotta focus on.”

There are a few things the Golden Knights will look to correct, like execution in the first period and doing more to disrupt Bobrovsky, which likely will help Vegas capitalize on its chances. Otherwise, Vegas needs to just stick to the game plan.

“When you get this far, neither team wants to stray too far from what they’ve done because they’ve both been successful,” Cassidy said. “We certainly feel the first three games, there’s been way more good than bad.”

William Karlsson also said the Golden Knights need to stay the course.

“I think we’ve managed to stay composed throughout this playoffs,” he said. “I never expected it to go super easy, and it should not be. To win is a grind, and you know sometimes you lose, but all that matters is the next game, and focus on that, and I think we’ve done a great job throughout the playoffs after a loss. Just stay composed and go in for the next game and try to win that one instead.”

In order to do that, the Golden Knights need to get off to a better start, keep the special teams going, get more traffic in front of Bobrovsky and do more to contain Florida’s best line.

Keys to the game

Better start

The Golden Knights were largely outplayed for the first 15 minutes of Game 3. Even though Matthew Tkachuk was in concussion protocol after taking Keegan Kolesar’s thunderous hit, the Panthers had their best stretch of the series in the opening 20 minutes.

The Golden Knights need to get off to a better start tonight. Even though the slow start didn’t cost them, the margin for error at this point of the season is virtually nonexistent. Momentum is key, and giving Florida any more of it early won’t do Vegas any favors.

Kolesar said he threw that hit on Tkachuk to help get his team going.

“It’s just playing hockey, taking the hit that’s available there,” he said. “(Tkachuk) had the puck, he didn’t see me, I thought it was a prime opportunity to create some momentum for us as a team on the road. It’s what you gotta do because the crowd’s not gonna help you out. … The onus is on us to create our own momentum.”

The Golden Knights need to manage momentum out of the gate. They’ve done it well throughout the playoffs, and tonight calls for more of the same.

Keep the special teams going

The Golden Knights have struggled on the penalty kill throughout the season and postseason, most notably against the record-breaking Edmonton Oilers’ man-advantage that wreaked havoc on the league all year.

“Against Edmonton, it was very hard,” Karlsson said with a laugh. “They were very skilled and good. But yeah, I’m sure we learned a few things, but at the end of the day, it’s us trying to adjust to what they’re trying to do, and we’ve been doing a good job since then. You could say that that was pretty good practice for Dallas and then Florida now.”

That matchup forced Cassidy and the Golden Knights to make adjustments, and it gave this Vegas team belief that it could slow anybody down.

That is exactly what the Golden Knights have done to the Panthers, who are a combined 0-for-12 on the power play in this series.

“Overall, I think we’ve been doing some good things, but they have good players,” Stone said. “We’re doing a good job of just sticking to it, blocking shots, getting timely saves and getting the clears. We’re doing a good job in the faceoff circle as well.”

The Golden Knights need to continue to execute on the penalty kill in tonight’s contest.

“At the end of the day, I liked our kill,” Cassidy said. “I thought we did a good job with it. I thought they looked like they didn’t have the quick, efficient movement like they did in Game 2, so we obviously took some things away.”

One thing Cassidy referenced was taking away Florida’s option of moving the puck to Sam Reinhart in the bumper, something he said the team needs to be mindful of moving forward.

On the flip side, the Golden Knights have scored two power play goals in every game.

“Our power play this year has been a challenge for us,” Cassidy said. “It comes down to execution and finishing plays, so we’re on a bit of a roll that way. You’re not gonna get six goals in three games very often on the power play; we understand that. … We’ve tried to be more efficient on it knowing that we’re gonna get opportunities. … It was very important for us to get it going because it’s been kind of a little inconsistent throughout the playoffs.”

The difference in Game 3, however, was that those power-play tallies were the only goals Vegas managed to register. That was largely due to the play of Bobrovsky.

Get traffic to the net

In order to combat Bobrovsky’s strong play, the Golden Knights need to get more bodies in front to take away his eyes.

“We just gotta keep shooting,” Cassidy said. “There’s not a whole lot you can change there. The one thing we did better I think was get traffic in front of him the previous games, so we’ll revisit that.”

The Golden Knights scored eight goals on Bobrovsky in the first two games of the series and ultimately chased him from the net after getting four on 13 shots in Game 2. The major difference between those games and Game 3 was his ability to see the shots.

The Panthers set a number of screens on their own netminder earlier in the series but did a much better job clearing the sight lines so Bobrovsky could take care of the rest. He was very sharp, but if the Golden Knights make it more challenging for him to track the puck, it will be that much more difficult for him to steal another game.

Contain the Tkachuk line

Tkachuk was held to one point and was awarded three 10-minute misconducts in the first two games of the series. In Game 3, despite missing most of the first period and part of the second due to Kolesar’s hit, Tkachuk assisted on Brandon Montour’s goal in the first period and scored the game-tying goal with 2:13 remaining in the third period to force overtime and save Florida’s season.

“Every game, win or lose, we’re still looking at a few things that we can do better,” Cassidy said. “Their top line were all over the scoresheet, so that’s the first area we’ll look at.”

Tkachuk had two points, Carter Verhaeghe had two points and Sam Bennett recorded the primary assist on Verhaeghe’s overtime clincher.

The Golden Knights need to find an answer for that line. It’s something Vegas has been able to do against top lines throughout the playoffs, and it’s something that will be imperative in tonight’s matchup.

The Golden Knights were under no illusions headed into Game 3, and they certainly don’t expect anything to come easy for the rest of this series.

“We knew it was gonna be tough,” Stone said. “They’re a resilient team.”

As Jimmy Dugan says in A League of Their Own, “It’s supposed to be hard. The hard is what makes it great.”

That’s something the Golden Knights players know all too well.

“If it was easy, everyone would do it, right?” Kolesar said. “We’ve grinded all year, grinded through playoffs, enjoyed every moment of it. … You know how hard it is, and you know the rewarding feeling at the end of it.”

The Golden Knights know what’s at stake tonight. They also know what it takes to win big games in the playoffs.

“You’d still like to think we do have another gear,” Cassidy said. “We saw (what our best game looks like) in Dallas a little bit, somewhat in Edmonton, so I think our guys are familiar with it and that’s what’s made us successful. I think we can get back to it quickly because we’ve seen what it looks like, and that’s gonna be the challenge for us in Game 4.”

The Golden Knights have reset and regrouped, as they have throughout the postseason.

“We want to get back in the win column,” Cassidy said. “Guys know what’s at stake. I think it’s as simple as that.”

The Golden Knights know how to bounce back.

“Our team’s been good at it all season,” Jack Eichel said. “I think some of that has to do with some of the experience and veteran leadership on the team. But I think also just the character of the guys; I think that speaks most about our ability to come back after losing games and have a good performance, and we’re gonna need one tonight. We know they’re gonna have their best, so we’re gonna have to match that intensity.”

The Golden Knights know what needs to be done.

“We’re in good spirits and ready to go for tonight,” Stone said.

Projected lineups

Golden Knights

Ivan Barbashev – Jack Eichel – Jonathan Marchessault
Reilly Smith – William Karlsson – Michael Amadio
Brett Howden – Chandler Stephenson – Mark Stone
William Carrier – Nicolas Roy – Keegan Kolesar

Alec Martinez – Alex Pietrangelo
Brayden McNabb – Shea Theodore
Nicolas Hague – Zach Whitecloud

Adin Hill
Jonathan Quick


Anthony Duclair – Aleksander Barkov – Sam Reinhart
Carter Verhaeghe – Sam Bennett – Matthew Tkachuk
Ryan Lomberg – Anton Lundell – Nick Cousins
Colin White – Eric Staal – Zac Dalpe

Gustav Forsling – Aaron Ekblad
Marc Staal – Brandon Montour
Josh Mahura – Radko Gudas

Sergei Bobrovsky
Alex Lyon

How to watch

Game 4: Golden Knights at Panthers
When: 5 p.m. PT
Where: FLA Live Arena – Sunrise, FL
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM

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