The Vegas Golden Knights had everything they’d ever wanted in the palm of their hand. A 3-0 series lead and a mentally defeated Florida Panthers were two minutes and 13 seconds away. But Zach Whitecloud committed the cardinal sin when he let game-breaking winger Matthew Tkachuk behind him at the net, as Nic Hague also left his post near the net.
Florida won Game 3, 3-2, in OT at FLA Live Arena Thursday. The series is 2-1 instead of 3-0, and the difference is staggering.
“They stuck around, they found a goal at the end, and then they won in overtime,” said Jack Eichel. “Obviously, you don’t want to blow a lead — You’re up a goal with a few minutes left. But it’s all part of it. I mean, nobody said it’s going to be easy.”
Tkachuk scored three game-winners in the Eastern Conference Final. He scored a pair of OT winners and one with five seconds remaining. In the final minutes, Tkachuk should have neon lights highlighting his whereabouts at all moments.
But there he was, the puck on his stick and nothing between him and twine.
Golden Knights Chalkboard:
In Game 3, the Florida Panthers did the things they did to get to the Stanley Cup Final. They relied on a ridiculous goaltending performance from Sergei Bobrovsky and a last-minute goal.
That’s not exactly a winning formula, either.
First, the Vegas Golden Knights did a few things right. They again took away the scoring zones from Florida. Despite giving up 10 scoring chances in the first period, the VGK allowed only five shots. That means those chances and shots were blocked, many by defensemen.
The Golden Knights’ forwards were not great in the defensive zone Thursday. They had several breakdowns; in the first period especially, it seemed they wanted to settle a few scores and left their stations to make a hit or were otherwise “trying to score” rather than applying structured forecheck.
Goalie Adin Hill faced a couple of unfettered shots from a few feet away.
Florida had far more shot attempts (49-36), meaning they had the puck more often. The scoring chances were slightly in Florida’s favor (23-18), but the Golden Knights’ defensemen absorbed many of them.
However, the Golden Knights did a lot of good things, too. They squeezed Florida off on the wall, preventing them from getting deep or into clean looks into the slot.
“Thought (5v5) was OK. I thought there were some spurts that were good. Special teams are a big part of it, and the power play got us a few … And here we are, we’re moving on to Game 4,” said Eichel. “We had some chances, but their goalie made a lot of saves, so we just got to stay on it.”
The breakouts Thursday were labored. Neither team was great — the bad ice created some turnovers, bad bounces, and the requirement to skate rather than make crisp passes.
Good, Bad & Worry
The good: The Golden Knights limited the Florida Panthers to only 23 shots.
For the most part, their gaps were good. They were tight to the puck (for the most part), and Florida didn’t have a lot of space.
The Golden Knights seemingly took the play to Florida at times when the Panthers should have pushed. The Golden Knights again created neutral zone turnovers and were two minutes away from winning.
“It’s not always going to be perfect, right? I mean, there’s a good push by them,” said defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. “Yeah, we would have loved to win it. I mean, we were a minute and a half away. So I thought we did a lot of good things throughout the game.”
The Golden Knights also played a good third period, at least the first 17 minutes. They had a few chances to put the dagger in Florida; probably the better of the significant chances.
Chandler Stephenson had a breakaway, and Jonathan Marchessault had a good look.
The Golden Knights also scored two power-play goals. The struggling unit has come to life in the Stanley Cup Final.
The Bad: They yielded 23 scoring chances.
On the game-tying goal, Tkachuk was behind Pietrangelo in the crease.
“They got it to the front of the net, and we didn’t recover quick enough. (It) happened to us in Winnipeg earlier in the playoffs and quite a few times during the year,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “It’s an area we’re still working to correct — (so) we don’t get outnumbered at the net. There’s a lot of things that lead up to that first — That’s the bottom line, it’s happened to us a few times now.”
On the game-winner, forward Brett Howden didn’t maintain his gap. He backed in, giving Carter Verhaeghe a good lane and shooting space. If Howden held his ground, it might have been a different story, perhaps even a Golden Knights counter-attack.
What to worry about: The Golden Knights had to chase parts of the game in a way they hadn’t before.
Beyond that, Florida has life. The VGK chased Sergei Bobrovsky in Game 2, but by the second period of Game 3, Bobrovsky was back to the dominant goalie who carried the Florida Panthers. Matthew Tkachuk got to the Golden Knights’ net better than he did in the first two games of the series.
Also, let’s admit it, Adin Hill wasn’t great. He didn’t face a lot of shots, but he gave up some rebounds and a couple of goals from the high slot. Both the Brandon Montour goal and the Verhaeghe winner were stoppable.
After a few perfect games by Hill and structured games from the forwards, the Golden Knights were OK in Game 3.
The best: Despite playing OK, the Vegas Golden Knights should have won. They can take solace that less-than-their-best won Game 1 and should have won Game 3. Florida hasn’t yet established their forecheck, either.
Those are the hooks on which to hang their hats.