Heading into Game 3, Panthers star Matthew Tkachuk commented that the Panthers couldn't "make it a series" unless they won that night. Tkachuk backed up his talk with a game-tying goal in the closing minutes of the third period to send the game to overtime, where the Panthers continued their undefeated extra-time streak in the 2023 playoffs with a 3-2 win.
With Game 4 on the docket tonight (8 p.m. ET, TNT), will Vegas return home with a 3-1 series lead? Or will Florida tie things up -- perhaps with another shower of plastic rats hitting the ice? Kristen Shilton and Greg Wyshynski serve up the four keys to victory for each club heading into this pivotal showdown.
Note: Shilton identified the keys for the Knights, while Wyshynski profiled the Panthers.
Put the power in power play
Coach Paul Maurice doesn't buy the premise that his team hasn't score a power-play goal in the Stanley Cup Final.
OK, so there are semantics at play here. The stats say the Panthers are 0-for-12 on the power play against Vegas, a team that has scored six goals on its power plays -- two in each game of the series. The Panthers are generating fewer shot attempts and high-danger chances on the man advantage than are their opponents.
That 6-on-5 goal aside, Maurice admitted his team needs to be better when there's a Golden Knight in the penalty box. But he's preaching patience.
"It's also our history in the playoffs that our power play has taken two or three games to make the adjustments we need to make because we're seeing such extreme differences in styles," he said. "From Carolina to Vegas, they're opposite ends the spectrum, in terms of pressure and opportunity. It's not like it's all messed up and we've got to fix this problem. It's an area of growth for us."
More "Playoff Bob"
For all of the heroics from Tkachuk and Carter Verhaeghe in Game 3, none of it would have been possible without Bobrovsky having his best game of the Stanley Cup Final.
"He gave us a chance to win and we used that chance," captain Aleksander Barkov said.
Bobrovsky went from a minus-2.6 goals saved above expected in Game 2, when he was pulled for backup Alex Lyon, to 1.6 goals saved above expected in the Panthers' Game 3 win.
"It is what it is. I can only control the things that I can control. You try to give your best and sometimes it happens," said Bobrovsky, who bounced back in a major way in Game 3 after being pulled in Game 2. "So it's OK as long as you stay mentally sharp as this series goes on. And tonight is a big win for us."
The Golden Knights held an 11-5 high-danger shot attempt advantage in the final two periods of Game 3. Bobrovsky closed the door, as he did all night at 5-on-5. If Vegas had sent even one goal past Bobrovsky at even strength, Florida might be in a 3-0 series hole.
The Golden Knights didn't seem too concerned with their 5-on-5 play after Game 3. They had the better of play from an expected goals perspective for most of the game, if not the volume of shot attempts the Panthers had. They just got goalie'd. They wouldn't have been the first with Bobrovsky in the other net.
Don't play the hits
Maurice made one of the most curious comments of the postseason after the Panthers' Game 2 loss, saying "I think we've made this series more physical than it needs to be."
The Panthers had 36 hits in Game 1 and 44 hits in Game 2 on the road. In Game 3, Maurice's players heeded his request: The Panthers were credited with just 14 hits, four fewer than the Golden Knights had in the game.
"I think we still played physical. We still had a lot of bumps on them. Maybe not as forceful hits as they were before, but they were still pretty solid," defenseman Radko Gudas said. "If it's there, take it. If it's not, then don't get thrown out of position. I think there's a smart way of looking at the physical side of the game. We're all learning as we play and learning from the mistakes."
Maurice said that by not chasing hits, his players would be in better position to make plays and would expend less energy during the game.
Did that edict include Gudas, one of the biggest hitters in the league?
"You can't tell Guddy not to hit," teammate Eric Staal said.
Maurice wasn't about to ask him, either. "If you watch his game, he understands the systems that we're running. He just doesn't make a lot of mistakes," the coach said.
Also, Gudas can "blow somebody up" with a check, said Maurice, who added -- as only Paul Maurice can do -- that his defenseman had a secret weapon on those hits.
"Radko's beard is actually part of him hitting. He has weights tied into the beard. The beard weighs 130 pounds," the quick-witted coach said. "You guys didn't know that. I'm not even sure if that's legal."
Get to overtime?
I asked Gudas what the Panthers locker room is like before a playoff overtime. Specifically, what the locker room is like for a team that seems to play its best hockey when regulation ends.
"Definitely not quiet, that's for sure," he said.
These Panthers are one of the most successful overtime teams in Stanley Cup playoff history. With their Game 3 win, the Cardiac Cats moved to 7-0 in this postseason. Some of those wins were critical ones on their journey to the Final: Games 5 and 7 against the Boston Bruins; Game 3 against the Toronto Maple Leafs; that quadruple-overtime game against the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 1 followed by a second straight road win in a Game 2 overtime.
It's not just this postseason. Going back to 2021, the Panthers have won 10 straight playoff overtime games, the second-longest streak in NHL history behind only the Montreal Canadiens, who won 14 straight from 1993 to '98.
There are some obvious reasons for the Cardiac Cats' success in overtime. Having finishers like Tkachuk and Verhaeghe helps. So does having a goalie like Bobrovsky who doesn't let anything by him. But Gudas said this Panthers team gained its overtime poise during the regular season, when Florida needed late-season wins just to make the playoff cut.
"We had a pretty tight second half of the season where everybody had to play in a situation where there it was a must-win and no mistakes were really allowed. It gave us the chance of knowing that we can make those plays in those crucial situations," he said. "I think everybody is confident with going in the overtime, but I don't think it's just the overtime."
Play on, power play
Vegas dominating the special teams battle has been critical to its success in the Cup Final. And if it ain't broke, well, you know how the saying goes.
The Golden Knights are 6-for-17 on the power play so far, compared to Florida's woeful 0-for-12 mark. Vegas used a pair of power-play scores to erase the Panthers' early success in Game 3 and nearly take the W themselves.
The Golden Knights didn't feel Thursday was close to their best effort, and still, special teams could have given them a stranglehold on the series. That confidence in the power play to come through -- especially when Florida has been so prone to penalties in the Cup Final so far -- can go a long way in continuing to give Vegas an edge.
Get out of your own end
The Golden Knights are -- unsurprisingly -- at their best when not jammed into the defensive zone.
Florida did a terrific job of making life hard on Vegas there in Game 3, to the degree that the Golden Knights struggled even finding an outlet pass. Vegas will need to manage Florida's forecheck better in Game 4 without compromising on its own style of play.
At their best, the Golden Knights move freely through the neutral zone, have forwards supporting their defense well and are predominantly in attack mode. They didn't challenge Panthers netminder Bobrovsky for too much of Game 3 (getting only one shot on goal through most of the first period was suboptimal), when that's a large part of how Vegas rolled through Florida in Game 1 and 2.
Look for the Golden Knights' offense to spark again if Game 4 goes their way.
Manage Matthew & Co.
Matthew Tkachuk has been a menace throughout the postseason. He didn't bring that same energy to the Cup Final until Game 3.
Vegas must hold those three -- and Tkachuk in particular -- to the perimeter in Game 4, and not allow the same Grade-A opportunities offered up to them on Adin Hill in Game 3.
The Golden Knights can get caught over-pursuing and then giving those topflight skaters too much room to operate in front of the net. Boxing out well and collapsing away so Florida's best shooters can't get set will hold those snipers at bay, let Hill see any pucks that do come his way and give the Golden Knights a quick transition back to offense.
Let the stars come out
It's not like Jack Eichel and William Karlsson haven't contributed throughout the Cup Final. But neither player has scored a goal against Florida (and Eichel hasn't lit the lamp since Game 5 of Vegas' second-round series against the Edmonton Oilers).
The Panthers showed in Game 3 the importance of a team's best players stepping up at key junctures. Vegas may have enviable offensive depth, but that wasn't carrying the day on Thursday and can't solely be relied upon to make a difference in Game 4.
The shift must eventually come from those yearlong contributors finding their own way onto the board in meaningful ways (like say, how Tkachuk did in Game 3).
If Vegas can ignite the likes of Eichel and Karlsson, it could not only lead to a 3-1 series advantage on Saturday but put some serious doubt into the Panthers' minds from there.