FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. >> The sour taste in the aftermath of their Stanley Cup Final Game 3 loss is gone for the Vegas Golden Knights, who quickly moved on to enjoying the nearby ocean breeze.
They’re breathing easily up 2-1 on the Florida Panthers in the series, knowing fully they’ve been the better team so far. Taking a day away off the ice and away from the rink — but not too far away from hockey on this big a stage — the Golden Knights are calm, cool and confident going into Game 4 tonight with another chance to move toward hoisting the Cup.
“We’re not going to change a lot. We don’t need to,” coach Bruce Cassidy said from his team’s beachfront hotel Friday morning. “We’re not going to beat ourselves up over (Game 3). We’re going to do what we’ve always done. We’re going to work to get better and keep growing our game and hopefully be better.”
The Golden Knights have only lost consecutive games once on this playoff run, when they were up 3-0 on Dallas in the Western Conference final. What followed was their best performance of the entire season.
That’s still the blueprint, which could come in handy since that was also a road game. But there are still elements of what Vegas is doing entirely within this series that give players confidence, everything from going a surprising 6 of 17 on the power play and a perfect 12 of 12 on the penalty kill to solving Sergei Bobrovsky early and even Ivan Barbashev hitting the post late in the third period Thursday.
“We certainly feel the first three games there’s been way more good than bad,” Cassidy said. “The guys know what’s at stake. It’ll be predominantly what we’ve been doing, 90% of how we want to play.”
The other 10%, the adjustments that make up the chess match during any playoff series, is also easy to identify. Forward Keegan Kolesar, whose crunching hit on Matthew Tkachuk knocked Florida’s leading scorer out for a big stretch of Game 3 because of concussion protocol, pointed to the Golden Knights giving up three goals at even strength as an anomaly.
“That’s not like us,” Kolesar said. “That’s something that we’re going to have to clean up. We’re not going to beat ourselves down on it. We know we’ll be better from it next game, but there’s just little critiques that we can probably do to help ourselves out.”
They can also go back to making it a priority to create South Florida rush hour-like traffic in front of Bobrovsky, who returned to his second- and third-round form in a major bounce back from getting pulled in Game 2, stopping 25 of 27 shots.
Bobrovsky’s brilliance is just one reason the Panthers are riding high after Carter Verhaeghe’s goal got them back in the series and made them 7-0 in overtime this postseason. There’s also Tkachuk’s latest playoff heroics: setting up new dad Brandon Montour’s goal early in Game 3, scoring with 2:17 left in regulation to tie it and screening Vegas goalie Adin Hill to pave the way for Verhaeghe to find the net.
Coach Paul Maurice said the win gave his team a chance, and that’s enough for him right now. He shook off any notion the Panthers might have found control of the series — saying they didn’t even feel that way when they were on the way to beating Toronto in five games and sweeping Carolina.
“The picture that just came into my head was a frog reaching up and choking an alligator or something, ‘I’ve got him where I want him,’” Maurice said. “No, we’re scratching and clawing shift by shift. We’re not looking for control.”
Veteran Vegas defenseman Brayden McNabb agreed with the notion that he and his teammates have control after establishing it earlier in the series.
“Go win Game 4, it’s 3-1: That’s a pretty big lead,” McNabb said. “They got a little momentum off winning last game. It ends after the game. Both teams have a chance to regroup. We know what’s at stake for Game 4, and it’s a big game for us.”