The Vegas Golden Knights are coming off one of the toughest losses in recent memory but are hoping to put it behind them immediately with a strong performance tonight in Game 4 against the Montreal Canadiens.
That will be easier said than done, as the Knights have yet to win in Montreal.
The Habs have won the last two games and have all the momentum with a 2-1 series lead headed into tonight’s critical contest.
One thing the Knights could really use is the return of Chandler Stephenson, who has missed the last two games, both losses.
Stephenson is considered day-to-day with an upper-body injury, but with the season on the line, having him back in the lineup would be an automatic boost for Vegas.
The general game plan doesn’t need to be overly different for the Knights, but the mindset has to be one of desperation. This is not an elimination game, but it’s one the Knights simply have to have.
Here’s what to watch for.
A fighting chance
The Knights played a strong game at 5-on-5 from a possession and shot perspective, as Vegas outperformed Montreal in every category except on the scoreboard.
That being said, the majority of those shots were of the low-danger variety or led to easy saves for Carey Price.
Of course, Price made several key stops, particularly in the third period, to keep the Canadiens in the game.
But the Knights failed to truly test him. Despite how dominant Vegas was, the Knights only generated eight high-danger shots (out of 34) at 5-on-5. In the end, Marc-Andre Fleury faced the same number in 60:52 of 5-on-5 play.
Of Vegas’ 11 first-period shots at 5-on-5, two of them were prime scoring chances.
The first was a jam play in front of the net by Nicolas Roy, though the probability of it going in was low considering Price has the lower part of the net covered.
The second was Roy’s partial breakaway; Price played it aggressively, taking away the angle as the Montreal defenseman caught up to Roy to force the shot.
The rest of the shots came from the perimeter, blue line and neutral zone.
It was more of the same in the second and third periods. Price had no chance on Roy’s goal, and he made a strong save on Alex Tuch’s breakaway as well as on a shot by Mark Stone from the circle. There was another chance in tight, but the puck stayed along the ice.
In the third, Vegas had 10 shots; one was the Alex Pietrangelo goal, which was a very soft goal, while another was Price’s memorable stop on the Tuch deflection in tight. Of the remaining eight 5-on-5 shots, only one was a great scoring chance, and at least five might as well have been classified as “no-danger” opportunities.
The Knights were dominant in possession; there’s no getting around that. But they need to do a lot more to test Price. He has missed a few screened and partial-screened shots, and Vegas had open-net targets in the earlier games; if the Knights get back to forcing him to move laterally and taking away his vision, they’ll have a much better chance of capitalizing.
Shot quantity is important, as you never know what may go in (both goalies have given up some questionable goals), but quality is how the Knights will get back in this series.
Far from special
The Golden Knights’ power play was particularly atrocious the other night.
Vegas went 0-for-4 in a game in which an insurance marker would have made all the difference.
Part of that is due to the fact that Montreal’s penalty kill has been lights-out during the playoffs.
In fact, it is the top-ranked penalty kill among all 16 playoff teams, operating at 92.7 percent. It has been so strong that the Canadiens have scored more shorthanded goals (four) than they’ve given up power-play goals (three). Montreal has killed off all 10 of Vegas’ opportunities thus far.
But the Knights helped kill off their own power plays by committing unforced errors.
There were failed entries, forced plays, poor passes that led to clears (with or without Montreal’s help), shots that missed the net, shots that didn’t get through and a plethora of poor decisions and mistakes, including a very risky pass that could have gone right into the Knights’ net.
There are too many to outline, but here is a compilation of some of those plays. Interestingly, the power play seemed to get worse as the night wore on, as evidenced by the George McPhee tantrum on the team’s fourth and final opportunity of the game.
The Knights have gone 4-for-38 in the postseason and have scored just one power-play goal in their last 18 attempts going back to Game 3 against Colorado.
The fact that the power play is Vegas’ greatest weakness is not a new concept; it has been that way since the start of the season.
However, should the Knights get a power play tonight, they’ll need to make sure that a poor effort doesn’t drain any momentum or give Montreal new life.
On the flip side, it will be crucial for the Knights to be significantly more disciplined tonight.
They got away with several calls in Game 3, particularly in the third period and overtime, and were fortunate to avoid being on the penalty kill for at least an extra 6-8 minutes. Jonathan Marchessault’s high stick on Corey Perry should have been a double minor at the very least, though it could have been a major and game misconduct.
That’s not out of the ordinary for Marchessault, but the Knights can’t afford any reckless behavior tonight. Giving players like Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki extra time and space on the ice is a recipe for disaster, especially as the Knights fight to keep the series and their season alive.
Scoring first didn’t lead to a win for Vegas in Game 3, but for all intents and purposes, the Knights were less than two minutes away from carrying out a very effective victory.
Fleury would have handled that puck cleanly 99 times out of 100; it was an unfortunate bounce that Vegas failed to overcome.
Despite the final outcome, though, it’s clear that scoring the first goal carries weight in this matchup.
The Knights got off to their best start in a while with a commanding first-period performance in Game 3; they’ll need a similar effort tonight. Montreal is 1-3 when giving up the first goal (0-3 prior to Friday’s collapse).
However, scoring first is not enough. The Knights need to hold that lead (or any lead) for more than a minute.
When Roy gave Vegas a 1-0 lead in Game 3, Caufield’s response just 38 seconds later was deflating. Vegas was able to overcome it, but trading goals like that is a dangerous game to play, especially at this point in the series.
The Knights have both scored and given up a number of quick-strike response goals throughout the playoffs.
- Marchessault scored a clutch goal 18 seconds after Matt Dumba gave the Wild a lead in Game 2.
- Kirill Kaprizov scored 52 seconds after Stone gave Vegas a 1-0 lead in the first period of Game 5.
- Kaprizov scored 2:30 after Roy to even things up at 2-2 in Game 7.
- Carl Soderberg scored 1:39 after William Karlsson in the second period of Game 3 against Colorado.
- Nick Holden scored 52 seconds after Devon Toews took a shocking 1-0 lead just 23 seconds into regulation in Game 6.
- Mattias Janmark scored 53 seconds after Caufield cut Montreal’s lead to 2-1 in Game 1, making it 3-1 at 12:58 of the second period.
- Pietrangelo scored 1:01 after Paul Byron gave the Canadiens a 3-0 lead in the second period of Game 2.
- Caufield scored 38 seconds after Roy in the second period of Game 3.
It has gone both ways for the Knights, and it’s happened one way or another in all three games in this series.
But if the Knights score (especially if they score first), holding that lead could go a long way towards building and maintaining confidence, which could help Fleury bounce back from what must have been an agonizing night.
Time to lead
The Golden Knights need a lot more from the top six.
Max Pacioretty tallied an assist on Pietrangelo’s goal as the two passed back and forth on their way up the ice, but that was his first and only point of the series.
Mark Stone has zero.
In fact, the only other players on the entire roster who have yet to record a point are William Carrier, Ryan Reaves and Patrick Brown (who has played one game).
Captain Stone, Carrier and Reaves.
To be fair, Carrier has had, for the most part, a fantastic series. He’s been noticeable on the ice and leads all Vegas skaters in individual expected goals (1.0). He’s also tied for third in individual Corsi (14), tied for second in individual scoring chances (7) and tied for first in individual high-danger Corsi (5). The fact that he hasn’t found the scoresheet shouldn’t take away from those numbers.
The same can’t be said for Stone.
He has five shots in the whole series while averaging 21:17, the fifth-highest ice time on the team and highest among forwards.
That’s not to say he has been invisible or hasn’t made plays. He has.
But it’s not as though he has struggled against the Canadiens throughout his career. Thanks to his time in Ottawa, Stone has 20 points in 23 career regular-season games against the Habs.
While Stone’s emotional leadership has a profound influence on his teammates, the Knights need production from the captain (as well as from Pacioretty) moving forward.
How to watch
Time: 5 p.m.
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM/1340 AM