Stanley Cup Game 4 Notebook: How Vegas is flushing ‘sour taste’ of overtime stunner

David Amber, Kelly Hrudey, and Kevin Bieksa discuss if the Panthers should feel good after Game 3 win, and assess Golden Knights' chance of winning the Cup.

SUNRISE, Fla. – Seemingly having the game — and the series — in total control Thursday night, the Vegas Golden Knights looked stunned while they were getting showered by plastic rats under a frozen clock.

Up 2-0 in the series and 2-1 late in Game 3, they had the Florida Panthers on the mat. Yet here they were, skating off the FLA Live ice following the one-two punch of Matthew Tkachuk’s 6-on-5 tying goal and Carter Verhaeghe’s winner on the scrappy home side’s first shot of OT.

Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy spoke of a “sour taste” postgame yet woke up Friday and rinsed his mouth. Staying five-star beachside in Fort Lauderdale, he gave his veteran group a full day off.

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No video. No bus to the rink. No talk of the Panthers.

Relax. Reset. Do whatever is necessary to get your mind right.

“We’re not going to change a lot. We don’t need to,” a confident Cassidy proclaimed.

Captain Mark Stone is equally unfazed: “We knew it was going to be tough, right? They’re a resilient team. We want to be able to close games, but we’ll regroup and be ready for the next one.”

The series, thus far, is devoid of mind games.

Vegas is embracing the favourite role. The Knights feel due for a championship.

While the underdog Panthers love their position as the scrappy squad all the pundits have written off.

“The proof is in the pudding, right?” Ryan Lomberg told reporters Saturday morning, ahead of Game 4. “It doesn’t do us any good to get too far ahead of ourselves. As tough as it is, just stay in the moment, enjoy the process and the results will be there at the end.”

Florida coach Paul Maurice won’t go so far as to say that Thursday’s dramatic comeback has planted a seed of doubt in their opponent’s mind.

“Let me just say we gave ourselves a chance. We beat Carolina and Toronto 8-1, and at no point did it feel like we were in control of those series or in the games. Maybe in this series less than any other — in Carolina, Toronto and three of four against Boston, the other team had dominant periods where they had completed control. So, we’ve never felt that way,” Maurice said.

“It’s like the picture that just came into my head of a frog reaching up and choking an alligator: ‘Got ’em right where we want ’em.’ No. We’re scratching and clawing shift by shift. We’re not looking for control.”

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Who pulled the plug on the power-play?

The Panthers’ power play struggled early in the Boston series, then picked up late, generating five goals in the final four games of Round 1. Florida scored seven power-play goals in the nine games it took to take care of Toronto and Carolina.

Now, it’s gone silent. Vegas is outscoring Florida 6-0 on the man advantage.

It’s a problem.

“We’re kind of forcing plays a little bit, I think,” Carter Verhaeghe said. “A lot of times on the power play, it’s a quick shot and broken play that goes in. It’s not always going to be the perfect play, and that’s kind of what we’ve got to do — kind of with our 5-on-5 mindset, too. We kind of have a 5-on-5 mindset and be on the puck and get pucks back and get pucks to the net.”

Vegas penalty-killer William Karlsson believes having to survive the Oilers’ power-play in Round 2 — one of the most dangerous 5-on-4 setups of all time — helped his group dial in on the kill.

“Against Edmonton, it was very hard. They were very skilled and good. But, yeah, I’m sure we learned a few things,” Karlsson said. “We’ve been doing a good job since then. You could say that that was pretty good practice for Dallas and then Florida now.”

Panthers pride

It has cost Panthers fans, no matter how many or few, much more than $100 for a parking spot at the Stanley Cup Final to stick by a team that went 25 years without winning a playoff series before last season. Suddenly, as the eighth-seeded team in the Eastern Conference, they have a chance Saturday night to tie the Stanley Cup Final at 2-2.

Thursday’s 3-2 overtime win was the Panthers’ first in a Stanley Cup Final, after Florida was swept by the Patrick Roy-Peter Forsberg-Joe Sakic Colorado Avalanche in 1996. The game was especially special to the longest-tenured Panthers, Aleksander Barkov, and Aaron Ekblad.

A second-overall pick in 2013, Barkov is finishing his 10th season in Florida. Ekblad, first-overall in 2014, is in Year 9.

“These are good men,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice told reporters Friday. “When you get a guy that’s a franchise player — usually it also means they’re getting paid pretty well — they feel responsibility. They do. And when you get paid that much money and if you’re a cornerstone — and there are two or three guys on every single sports franchise that are — they carry a weight with that, pressure with that. It’s not just they’re tied into the team; the Barkovs and Ekblads are Florida Panthers.  (These playoffs) are a little bit of a giveback because they got paid and they worked their butts off and. . . they want the fans to be proud and now their team is at a place where the fans can truly enjoy it. 

“You need to be able to give something back to your fans and (Game 3) was a real nice giveback to the fans, right? The first Stanley Cup Final win and first in this building, everybody had a great time, that’s what sports is all about in a lot of ways. So, the players feel the weight of responsibility, and they also should feel proud of themselves for a pretty nice gift to the fans.”

Block party

The Golden Knights are experts at clogging shooting lanes, which makes life easier on goaltender Adin Hill.

In Game 3’s loss, Vegas blocked a ridiculous 31 shots, and the Knights lead the series in blocks by a count of 67-39.

Part of that is a willingness to sacrifice the body. Part of it is structure. The Knights’ big defencemen play a zone and are instructed not to stray too far from the net-front, where the pucks get funneled.

“They’re really good at blocking shots, and I think we need to try to shoot faster,” Anton Lundell said. “And when we know they’re trying to block shots, we need to try to move the puck a little bit. Like, change the angle and maybe a little more one-timers, like quick shots, so we get them through. And when we get them through, we have more guys at the net and hopefully we get rebounds.”

Cats’ whiskers

Radko Gudas’s chin is something glorious to behold, but he will admit that he’s now getting food caught in his beard regularly.

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“There’s a debate right now,” Maurice said. “If you’re into red beards, Mark Staal’s is pretty impressive right now. I think that he’s up there. But Radko’s beard is actually part of him hitting. His weight is tied into the beard. The beard weighs 103 pounds. I’m not sure that’s legal, and now the refs will start going through his beard.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum is poor Lundell, whose few strands of peach fuzz has Gudas awarding the forward Worst Playoff Beard on the team.

“If you slammed the door too hard, it might fly off,” Gudas quipped.

One-Timers: Florida’s Eetu Luostarien played all 82 games of the regular season and the first 16 of the playoffs, but the injured forward has yet to appear in the final. He won’t play in Game 4…. The Florida Everblades won the Kelly Cup Friday, becoming back-to-back ECHL champions. Maurice’s son, Jake, works for the team as its play-by-play broadcaster on road games. “He’s got the first championship in the family. So, holding that over my head,” Maurice told reporters Saturday morning…. The NHL released intermission footage of Jack Eichel explaining the effect of Matthew Tkachuk’s monstrous open-ice hit in Game 2 to his teammates: “I lost my wind. I couldn’t breathe.”

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