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Golden Knights vs. Canucks — Game 7 Preview: Now or never

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Win and advance; lose and go home.

Chicago Blackhawks v Vegas Golden Knights - Game Five

The Vegas Golden Knights have backed themselves into a corner after losing back-to-back games in the best-of-seven second-round series against the Vancouver Canucks.

The Knights scored three goals in the third period for a comeback win in Game 4 to take a 3-1 series lead, but it has been all Canucks — or all Thatcher Demko — since.

The young netminder, filling in for the injured Jacob Markstrom, has stopped 90 of 91 shots over the last two games. The only goal he gave up was the gorgeous highlight-reel play by Shea Theodore in Game 5.

Since tonight is the second half of a back-to-back, it’s possible Markstrom (if healthy) could get the call, but one would think it will be Demko looking to extend his shutout streak and carry his team into the next round.

Demko appeared shaken up late in the third period, though he was able to finish the contest, recording a 48-save shutout in a game in which his team registered 23 shots on goal. The 48 saves are an NHL-best in a playoff shutout that did not go to overtime.

Who starts for Vegas remains uncertain. Robin Lehner wasn’t to blame for last night’s 4-0 Game 6 loss, but he certainly didn’t out-duel the guy at the other end of the rink. Even so, he recorded two shutouts in the first three games of this series, and he wasn’t overly tested last night, making him a possibility for Game 7.

Marc-Andre Fleury, on the other hand, is about as fresh as he’ll ever be since he’s been riding the bench for the majority of the postseason. He was victorious in his only start of the series (a 5-3 win in Game 4), is 2-0 in the playoffs and is undefeated (3-0) in the postseason. He hasn’t shut out opponents, but he’s a battler, and that might be what Vegas needs tonight.

Here are three keys to tonight’s Game 7 matchup.

Mind games

Demko has been sensational over the last two games, and it’s clear the Golden Knights have been gripping their sticks a little too tightly as a result.

But the Knights can’t let Demko get in their heads.

The best way to avoid that? Score early.

That’s important for a few reasons. Putting aside Game 5, which was an anomaly, Vancouver’s victories in this series have both come when Vancouver has scored in the first few minutes of the game. In Game 2, it took just 1:29 for Tyler Toffoli to give the Canucks an early lead, and Jake Virtanen needed just 2:50 last night to score what proved to be the game-winning goal in Game 6.

The Knights need a better start tonight.

Not only are they 6-1 in the first two rounds when scoring first this postseason (Game 5 being the only exception), but the Knights are now 1-3 when giving up the first goal. Plus, a team facing elimination has nothing to lose, and any bit of confidence goes a long way. The Canucks came ready to play last night, but the early goal (particularly since it was from the fourth line) changed the landscape of the game.

The Knights haven’t lit the lamp in 84 minutes and 48 seconds. The sooner they can change that, the sooner they can get back to playing Golden Knights hockey.

The Knights also need to block out the noise about last year. Yes, Vegas was up 3-1 and ultimately lost the series, but this is not the same situation, and there’s no use comparing.

Mirror’s deflection

The Knights recorded 48 shots in Game 6 and 43 in Game 5, but what did it get them? Favorable possession statistics and a whole lot of nothing.

While Vegas has outshot Vancouver 91-40 over the last two games, the Knights need to focus on quality, not quantity.

But that doesn’t have to mean high-quality.

In fact, Vegas might be better off with a scrappy approach. The Knights are not above greasy goals, and there’s nothing wrong with scoring on deflections and tips. Even a slight change in direction can make a save virtually impossible for a goaltender, and it seems that that’s what needs to happen for the Knights to beat the 24-year-old Demko.

In order to score such goals, the Knights need players in front of the net. Whether it’s someone stationed in the slot or at the top of the crease or a moving screen trying to take Demko’s eyes away, the Knights must get bodies to the front. It’s much harder to make a save when you can’t see the puck, and it’s much harder to rely on sound positioning when the puck changes direction en route to the net.

Vancouver has done a great job clogging up the middle of the zone at both 5-on-5 and on the penalty kill. That doesn’t mean the Knights can’t move the puck around. Deflections are often scored on shots going wide, and there’s no way of knowing where the puck will end up. Changing the angle on a shot makes life more difficult for the goaltender, and Demko is sitting pretty right now. That’s not to say he isn’t working for his results, but the Knights need to make better use of their time in the offensive zone. Whether a shot deflects off a Knights stick or a Canucks skate, a goal is a goal, and the Knights need to start scoring some.

Leave it all out on the ice

Tonight is the Knights’ last chance to advance to the Western Conference Final, where they would have the chance to take on the winner of the Dallas-Colorado contest taking place this afternoon.

It all comes down to today.

Though this season has felt very disjointed as a result of COVID-19, the Knights have been training, fighting and competing all year for a moment like this.

Forget the last two games. Forget the last six. It all comes down to tonight.

What the Golden Knights franchise has achieved over the last three seasons is remarkable. One thing the organization has yet to do, however, is win a Game 7.

If last year is any example, the Knights need a 60-minute effort tonight. They can’t take the foot off the pedal or lose focus. That means cleaning up the unnecessary penalties; discipline could be crucial tonight, regardless of the fact that the Knights and Canucks combined to go 0-for-9 on the power play last night.

The Knights are one of the deepest teams in the NHL; that could play a role tonight, as it did in Game 4 (though the Canucks were able to rest players down the stretch last night). However, the Knights win as a team, and it will take everyone at their best to finish the job.

Clean exits. Crisp passes. Smart hits. Ferocious forecheck. Responsible backcheck. Relentless effort. No hesitation.

Golden Knights hockey.


Projected lineups

Vegas

Max PaciorettyWilliam KarlssonMark Stone
Jonathan MarchessaultPaul StastnyReilly Smith
Nick CousinsNicolas RoyAlex Tuch
William CarrierChandler StephensonRyan Reaves

Brayden McNabbNate Schmidt
Theodore — Alec Martinez
Jon MerrillZach Whitecloud

Fleury
Lehner

Vancouver

J.T. MillerElias PetterssonBrock Boeser
Tanner PearsonBo Horvat — Toffoli
Antoine RousselAdam GaudetteBrandon Sutter
Tyler MotteJay Beagle — Virtanen

Alexander EdlerTroy Stecher
Quinn HughesChristopher Tanev
Oscar FantenbergJordie Benn

Demko
Louis Domingue


How to watch

Time: 6 p.m. PT

TV: NBCSN

Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM