Battered by the Kings all game, the Knights absorbed all the physical punishment and then scored three times in the third period to beat Los Angeles 3-2 and move within a game of winning their first ever National Hockey League playoff series.
In 2018, speed beats physicality. At least it does when you combine it with the skill, cohesiveness, lineup depth and self-belief the Knights have engineered in their improbable, impossible inaugural season.
Those 51 wins in the regular campaign were not lucky. Vegas is that good. Now the Knights are 3-0 in the Stanley Cup playoffs, too, and can make the final eight with a win in Game 4 here Tuesday.
“We’re going to be in all different situations throughout the playoffs here if we want to make a run,” veteran James Neal said after scoring the 26th playoff goal of his career during the Knights’ late surge. “We knew they weren’t going to go away, knew the (physical) push they were going to have. We just believe in ourselves, believe in our team and we continue to play the right way.”
If people were expecting a market correction or reality check for the Knights in the playoffs, it isn’t happening against the Kings, who played their best game of the series and still lost.
“I think people have been waiting since Game 1 and it hasn’t happened yet,” Vegas centre Cody Eakin said. “We don’t plan on slowing down.”
With Vegas trailing for the first time in the playoffs, Eakin tied it 1-1 at 6:10 of the third period when, after his first shot was blocked by defenceman Dion Phaneuf, the Knight got a second chance and buried Ryan Carpenter’s pass behind goalie Jonathan Quick.
Neal then spun away from Kings defenceman Oscar Fantenberg and fooled Quick with a quick shot through his pads to make it 2-1 at 14:23. And 21 seconds later, William Karlsson converted Reilly Smith’s centring pass after the Vegas forward beat two Kings to puck on the end boards following a lost faceoff.
Anze Kopitar deflected in Fantenberg’s shot to bring the Kings within a goal with 2:04 remaining. But Los Angeles still fell to 0-3 in this series and 1-7 since the Kings won their second of two Stanley Cups four years ago.
“They were relentless on their forecheck, turning it up ice and playing the way we like to play,” Eakin said. “We did a good job weathering it and continuing to move our feet and in the third period we capitalized at the right time.”
Unable through two games to join ’em, the Kings tried to beat ’em on Sunday.
They tried to slow down the Knights the old-fashioned way. Well, the old-fashioned way in playoff hockey. The Kings hammered the Knights physically every chance they could.
Off-ice officials in this series have showered the scoresheet with hits as if they were throwing rice at newlyweds. Los Angeles coach John Stevens noted after Game 1 (127 official hits in 60 minutes) that if the stats were accurate there’d be nobody left to play Game 2.
On Sunday, the Kings were credited with 28 hits in the first 20 minutes. That may have included dirty looks and bad breath. But what was indisputable was the physical intensity with which the Kings attacked the Knights.
On one indicative sequence, Los Angeles winger Dustin Brown tripped Marc-Andre Fleury as the Vegas goalie tried to get across his crease, then steadied himself by chopping down with his stick on the back of defenceman Nate Schmidt’s leg. Had there been a folding metal chair nearby, as there is in wrestling, Brown would have smashed it over someone’s head when the refs weren’t looking.
In more conventional hits, Jake Muzzin knocked down Karlsson, Adrian Kempe threw to the ice Jon Merrill, and Drew Doughty blasted Smith. All in the first five minutes. But between all those early hits, the game was still in the Kings’ zone more than it was the Knights’ half of the ice.
Quick, who was easily the best King in Las Vegas – sorry fat Elvis – for the series’ first two games, made a backdoor save against Colin Miller and bumped Erik Haula’s shot straight up in the air, finding the puck just in time to keep it from tumbling in behind him.
Ironically, amid all the human missiles the Kings were launching, it was overly-aggressive play by the Knights’ Schmidt that led to Los Angeles’ opening goal at 13:14.
The Vegas defenceman drifted behind the net to try to land a check on Brown, who was already engaged with Brayden McNabb, Schmidt’s partner. When the puck squirted to Kopitar, there was no defenceman in front to cover Alex Iafallo, who tucked the puck under the bar for a 1-0 lead that had to be confirmed by a video review.
The official scorer’s pen must have run out of ink in the second period because the Kings were credited with only nine hits, which is akin to pacifism. But L.A. maintained its lead until the Eakin line turned the game on one superb, third-period shift.
“It was for sure the toughest one,” Karlsson said. “They came in hard, they were physical.”
And still the Knights won. That should tell you something.