For nearly 58 minutes last night, the Golden Knights were the better team. Hockey can be cruel though, and unfortunately, Vegas had to endure another lesson on the unpredictability of the best sport on the planet.
The commanding 3-0 Stanley Cup lead vanished and now the Panthers have a heartbeat where it felt like they were heading for life support.
The preponderance of the game may not have led to the outcome the Golden Knights were searching for, but that does not mean it did not exist nor that it can’t be learned from. There was plenty of good with just a sprinkle of bad. Here’s what went right, what went wrong, and what needs to change for Vegas heading into Game 4 tomorrow night.
What went right
Probably the strongest aspect of the Golden Knights’ game not only last night, but in the series as at large, has been their penalty kill. Vegas is a sterling 12 for 12 on the kill and caused the Panthers to struggle in many areas with the man advantage.
The strongest among them has been Vegas’ entry defense. Time and time again when Florida is attempting a power play breakout they’ve run into troubles at the VGK blue line. So much so that their most successful entry attempts have come by dumping the puck in. In addition, the Golden Knights have been excellent at clearing the puck when they get it on their sticks. If Vegas gets a touch, there’s a strong possibility the puck is headed 200 feet the other way.
Finally, the Golden Knights made adjustments inside of the penalty kill that helped on the later Florida Power plays.
They looked like they didn’t have the quick efficient movement like they did in Game 2 so we took some things away. What they did was hit (Sam) Reinhart in the bumper a few times and that’s something we corrected as we went along. -Cassidy
Florida was able to work the puck into Reinhart three times on a pair of power plays in the 2nd period. The final one in the 2nd and the only in the 3rd, Vegas denied that option and it further stymied the Panther power play.
Protecting the house
When you look at the shot chart from Game 3 it appears the Panthers had a lot of activity around the front of the Golden Knights’ net. However, in reality, despite the puck being there a lot more often than Vegas would prefer, Florida was not able to generate offense from directly in front of the goal.
Florida attacked from every different angle and with varying numbers advantages or disadvantages and the Golden Knights had the answer for all of them at even strength. Vegas racked up 31 shots protecting the center and there were countless numbers of stick checks that broke up plays before Florida could even attempt the shot.
Adin Hill was clean on most of his rebounds and on the ones he wasn’t the first stick on the puck in the blue paint or anywhere close was almost always by a player wearing white and gold.
Neutral zone structure
In the 2nd period the Golden Knights put on a clinic in how to defend a dangerous team through the center of the ice. Vegas constantly had at least four players between the puck and the goal when the Panthers would get it and they displayed excellent structure through the middle of the ice on every Florida breakout.
The neutral zone effectiveness led to Florida generating just four shots on goal, three scoring chances, and 0.16 expected goals at 5-on-5 in the middle frame. The Panthers were constantly caught in between on whether to dump-and-chase or try for the controlled entry and that indecision led to multiple rush chances for the Golden Knights.
What went wrong and what needs to change
Dealing with bad ice conditions
It’s something the Golden Knights have struggled with for quite some time now, at FLA Live Arena in particular. Vegas entered the game knowing they’d likely encounter some turbulence when trying to slide the puck along the ice, but they didn’t seem to react to it quickly enough at the start of the game. Florida dominated loose puck battles in the 1st period and it helped ignite their forecheck which had struggled through the first two games.
As the game went on, Vegas started to settle in, but they still believe they could have managed the poor ice better.
When the ice isn’t great sometimes you have to dumb it down a little bit and simplify the game. -Alex Pietrangelo
This really cropped up a bit late in the 3rd period when the Golden Knights began to exhibit some issues exiting the zone. Through almost all of the first nine periods, Vegas had been clean on their exits including short one-touch passes that broke Florida’s pressure. But, with the challenging ice conditions, those passes can be a bit more difficult to complete as the puck has a tendency to bounce uncontrollably.
Simpler exits can fix this. Rather than going for the clean, pretty play, Vegas may need to rely a bit more on things like dump, chip, or rim outs. This is especially important when playing with the lead as there is no longer a need to generate offense from these types of clean exits. Vegas wasn’t terrible in this department, but they definitely can improve.
Defending against the empty net
This one is obvious considering the result, but it’s been a persistent issue through the postseason for the Golden Knights. In three separate series, the first game in which Vegas faced an empty net they’ve given up a goal in the same manner. Winnipeg, Dallas, and Florida have all outnumbered Vegas in front of the goal on a rebound and poked home a massive goal to send each game to overtime.
What must change for the Golden Knights is an increased awareness of when to pressure the puck when it along the walls or at the points. Vegas’ zone defense at 5-on-5 has these keys down to a science and they’ve left the Panthers, Stars, and Jets before them all frustrated with their own inability to get to the center of the ice. But once the extra skater is out there the keys must change. On all three goals, including the massive one to tie the game last night, Vegas has found themselves losing a board battle with a defenseman away from the middle of the ice. In last night’s game, it didn’t lead directly to the goal, but it did lead to a scramble which eventually allowed Matthew Tkachuk to find inside positon on the rebound of the following shot.
There’s a fine line when playing against six skaters on when to attack and when to sit back. The Golden Knights know how to do it, and they’ve displayed it multiple times during the regular season and playoffs, they just need to walk that line a little better the next time the situation arises.
There’s a reason the NHL makes teams play seven times to determine which team is better. It’s because in this sport, the better team doesn’t always win. The Golden Knights have been the better team in all three games thus far in the Stanley Cup Final. It’s earned them a 2-1 series lead. And even though it feels like it could (maybe should) be 3-0, if Vegas continues to be the better team all series, those final two wins will come.