Golden Knights vs. Blackhawks Game 3 Preview: Vegas looks to take stranglehold on series

The first half of the back-to-back could be a series-changing game.

The Vegas Golden Knights square off against the Chicago Blackhawks tonight in Edmonton for Game 3 of their first-round best-of-seven series. The Knights carry a 2-0 series lead after defeating Chicago 4-3 in overtime on Thursday. Reilly Smith scored the game-winning goal just over seven minutes into extra time.

Smith has been the MVP of the series, and the Knights’ second line in general has been fantastic.

Though all the games are in the same building, the series will “shift” to Chicago for the next two games, giving the Blackhawks the all-important advantage of last change. The Blackhawks will use this to their advantage to get the most out of their forward lines, which could force Vegas to change things up.

As well as the Knights have played, the Blackhawks’ core and fleet of young talent could be a tough one-two punch for Vegas to contend with in Game 3. Chicago will not go quietly, particularly since the Blackhawks were an inch away from tying the series with Dylan Strome hitting the crossbar in overtime.

That being said, the Knights have big plans for this postseason, so it should be a hard-fought battle on both sides.

Whether or not the Knights will have their leading scorer from the regular season in the lineup remains to be seen. Pete DeBoer had no update yesterday on either Max Pacioretty or Tomas Nosek, who scored a goal late in the first period to give Vegas a 2-0 lead but left late in the second and did not return.

Both are labeled as “unfit to play,” the darling new designation the NHL has rolled out for the Return to Play. As such, there’s limited information available, but DeBoer should know more later today.

Should both players be forced to miss the game, Vegas would have to choose a forward from the collection in the bubble, which includes Patrick Brown, Reid Duke, Keegan Keesar, Peyton Krebs and Gage Quinney (unless of course DeBoer elects to go with seven defensemen).

No matter what, the Knights have a tall task ahead of them, though it’s an even bigger opportunity.

In the span of less than 24 hours, the series could be tied at 2-2 or over in a sweep. If Vegas can get just one of the two games in the back-to-back, however, that will still be huge before they “head back home” for home-ice advantage in Game 5.

But first up is Game 3, so here are three things to watch for in tonight’s contest.

Goalie moly

DeBoer has said all along that the Knights have two No. 1 goaltenders and that he would evaluate the goalie situation on a daily basis.

“I think I’ve been clear since we started this that we’ve got two starters,” he said. “How I roll them out is going to be day to day based on what I feel gives us the best chance to win a game, and win a series. That’s not going to change.”

Well, that day has come.

Though it’s almost certain that both goalies will be used in the back-to-back, it’ll be interesting to see who DeBoer goes with tonight.

He could go back to Robin Lehner, hoping he can backstop a third straight win to bring the Blackhawks to the brink of elimination, or he could go with Marc-Andre Fleury and hope that he can be victorious, leaving the clinching game in Lehner’s hands.

It’s hard to go too wrong with either option, as both are more than capable of rising to the occasion. Lehner hasn’t been particularly strong in this series, but he’s 2-0 and remains undefeated as a Golden Knight.

Fleury has history on his side, with three Stanley Cups and 79 career postseason wins. Plus, he’s been dominant in the postseason for Vegas over the last few years. He may have had a rough time in the regular season, posting a 27-16-5 record with a 2.77 goals-against average and .905 save percentage, but as is the case for everyone, this is a brand new season, so he’ll have the same fresh start as everyone else.

The two split the starts in the first four games of the NHL’s Return to Play, with Fleury starting in the exhibition game against Arizona and the round-robin game against St. Louis, while Lehner started in the round-robin games against Dallas and Colorado. The team went 4-0-0 en route to claiming the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.

Pedal to the metal

The Golden Knights have held a 2-0 lead after 20 minutes in both games so far this series, and Chicago has scored the next goal in each. It was just one goal in Game 1, as David Kampf scored while shorthanded.

But the Knights blew two separate leads in the same period in Game 2.

Chicago scored the first two goals of the second period, erasing its two-goal deficit along the way; Mark Stone made it 3-2 with under three minutes left in the frame, but the Hawks tied it up with 14 seconds left. It’s hard to be too critical since it was simply an incredible play by Chicago. However, it’s important for the Knights to keep their foot on the gas all night, not just near the finish line.

After all, the Knights’ third period has been its best by far this postseason. They have outscored opponents 10-1, and though they weren’t able to add to that margin in Game 2, they were dominant nevertheless, managing possession metric percentages in the 70’s and 80’s across the board (i.e., 71.43 percent Corsi, 72.73 percent shot share, 85 percent scoring chance share, 29.29 expected goal share, etc.).

In the end, it may not be feasible for Vegas to play like that for 60 minutes, especially since every team in the playoffs is a contender. However, the effort and urgency needs to be there consistently, especially now that they won’t have control over line matching.

This mentality also applies to focus-related aspects of the game. Every little detail can end up being the difference between winning and losing, so it’s crucial that the Knights dot the i’s and cross the t’s.

For example, discipline needs to be a key area of focus for the Knights. It has been a positive so far this series, but it needs to stay that way; giving Chicago’s star players two minutes with extra time and space is not part of a recipe for success.

Also, though this shouldn’t have to be mentioned, it would behoove the Knights to remember how to execute line changes.  It was an issue the other night, especially on the shift that helped Chicago get on the board to start chipping away at Vegas’ handle on the contest.

Kane and able

Patrick Kane has the nickname of “Showtime” for a reason, and he found his game Thursday night for the first time this postseason. After a strong start in the first few games, Kane was relatively quiet for the remainder of the qualifying round, which carried over into Game 1 of this series.

But Thursday night was another story.

Kane may not have physically put the puck into the net, but he had a hand in all three of Chicago’s goals, finishing the game with three assists.

Plus, don’t forget about this shot, which clearly had Lehner beat and would have been a major momentum swing in Chicago’s favor at the end of the frame.

Kane (as well as Jonathan Toews) is a game-changer, more than anyone else in this series. Vegas can’t afford for him to get lost in the shuffle, even if he’s not the only threat on the team.

How to watch

Time: 5 p.m. PT


Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM