Golden Knights at Canadiens — Game 3 Preview: Vegas looks for better start and execution as series moves abroad

The Canadiens have stolen home-ice advantage; Vegas needs to win it back.

Elvis has left the building. And the country.

The Vegas Golden Knights find themselves up north for tonight’s Game 3 contest against the Montreal Canadiens. The two clubs are tied at one game apiece in the best-of-seven series, the winner of which will move on to compete against the Tampa Bay Lightning or New York Islanders for the all-elusive Stanley Cup.

The Golden Knights enter tonight’s game on the heels of a 3-2 loss, though the game was not as close as the score would indicate.

To Montreal’s credit, the Golden Knights were outplayed, especially early on. Vegas will have to be significantly better in just about every way moving forward, starting tonight.

The last time the Golden Knights were in Bell Centre was Jan. 18, 2020, the same month Vegas made a big splash with the surprising coaching change. In fact, it was Montreal that handed Pete DeBoer his first loss in his second game as Vegas bench boss.

In that game, the Vegas lineup featured Paul Stastny, Nate Schmidt, Cody Eakin and even Deryk Engelland, who played just three more NHL games following the 5-4 shootout loss.

Things have changed.

The same is true for Montreal, as Nick Cousins (prior to getting dealt to Vegas), Dale Weise, Nate Thompson, Ilya Kovalchuk and Max Domi all recorded points in the contest. None of those players are still with the Canadiens organization.

DeBoer and the Knights are hoping for different results this time around.

But getting back in the win column will require a strong turnaround effort. Favorable injury news with regard to Chandler Stephenson — who was sorely missed in Game 2 as a late scratch with an upper-body injury — would go a long way, but no matter what, the Knights need to regroup the way they did against Colorado.

Here’s what to watch for in tonight’s contest.

Don’t get me started

The Golden Knights had a disastrous start to Wednesday’s game, even though it had to have been a big part of the team’s game plan following the first half of the first period in Game 1.

The first period went about as poorly as it could have gone, as illustrated by the heat map below. The dark blue around the crease represents Montreal’s high-danger threat, while the virtually-nonexistent pale orange bubbles scattered around the zone — nowhere near the net — represent Vegas’ meager efforts.

At 5-on-5 in the first period, the Knights were outshot 10-3 and trailed in Corsi (24-13), scoring chances (14-4), high-danger Corsi (8-1) and expected goals (1.33-0.23). With their power play included, the Knights were outshot 12-4 and outscored 2-0 in the opening 20 minutes.

The slower start against a hungry team in Game 1 was understandable; Game 2 was unacceptable.

Montreal smothered the Knights in the first period. Not only was Marc-Andre Fleury unable to cover up his teammates’ mistakes (as he did in Game 1), but he gave up a soft goal reminiscent of the Brandon Saad change-up goal back in Game 5 against Colorado.

That goal gave the Canadiens a 2-0 lead at 16:30 of the first. They opened the scoring at 6:12 on a goal by Joel Armia that capped off an extended shift in Vegas’ end. The Knights had several chances to clear the puck but instead made soft plays that ended up feeding the Montreal cycle.

The Knights made similar kinds of plays early in Game 1, but Fleury was able to wipe up the mess. However, that was not the case in Game 2, and the first period essentially cost Vegas the game.

The Knights will be the road team in front of 3,500 enthusiastic Habs fans who will be eager to help their team retain home-ice advantage, which they now have after picking up a win in Vegas.

The Knights have to clean things up early on. Montreal will be buzzing, but the Knights have to match their intensity.

Vegas flipped the script completely against Colorado; now they have to break through the Canadiens’ suffocating style. That will include, among other things, better play in the neutral zone, changing the angle on shots to open more shooting lanes, making strong plays to get the puck out of the zone, winning races, etc.

Whether the Knights have Stephenson in the lineup or not, Montreal is the better faceoff team, even if the Knights have scored several goals off faceoffs so far in this series. But winning the faceoff battle is not paramount to Vegas’ success. Montreal won 56 percent of the draws in Game 1 and 58 percent in Game 2; it hasn’t been a critical factor.

What matters is how Vegas executes when the Knights win a faceoff and when they lose one. This means puck retrieval, winning puck and board battles and a stronger forecheck.

The Knights have to re-establish their game and set the tone, and it has to happen early.

At first light

Another reason a strong start is so critical for the Golden Knights is because of how significant the first goal has been for the Canadiens this postseason.

Following Wednesday’s game, the Canadiens are now 9-1 when scoring the first goal of a game. When giving up the first goal, that record turns to 0-3, which includes Game 1 in which the Knights were the first to light the lamp.

The Knights have scored first in five out of 15 games, four of which resulted in wins, so scoring first hasn’t been nearly as important in their games.

That is no longer the case.

That’s why the Knights must score first tonight. Or, if that’s not possible, they must at least stop the bleeding and keep it to a one-goal deficit, respond to an early Montreal strike and either get one back or take control of the game the way they’ve done in later periods.

The Knights are more than capable of playing dominant hockey in all three zones. They proved that against Colorado, and they did so for most of Game 1 and the later stages of Game 2 against Montreal.

They just have to do so early tonight.

Save the day

Fleury also has to be much better than he was in Game 2.

He gave up three goals on 23 shots for a save percentage of .870, his second-lowest mark this postseason behind a three-goal game against Minnesota in which he faced just 13 shots.

He played a part in two of Montreal’s three goals on Wednesday.

The first was Toffoli’s change-up. That simply cannot go in. At this stage of the playoffs, that’s something Fleury can’t allow, especially since it has already happened to him this postseason.

The Paul Byron goal was not fully Fleury’s fault, as Nick Holden made a risky bet and lost, which set up the breakaway. However, Fleury made the gamble of using his patented poke-check, and Byron clearly anticipated it and was ready for it. He avoided Fleury’s stick and scored easily into the open net for what proved to be the game-winning goal.

It’s hard to put much blame on Fleury.

The Knights would not be where they are without him, and they still had plenty of opportunities to win that game. That being said, Fleury needs to be better. He can be, and the Knights need him to be.

Stay the course

At the other end of the ice is Carey Price, considered one of the top goalies in the league. Price is not the main reason the Knights lost the other night, however.

His teammates played a fantastic game in front of him and took control of the game by building a 3-0 lead before the Knights really started playing. The Canadiens put forth a winning effort, including blocking 26 shots, which meant Price didn’t have to do a ton. He made saves when he needed to, including the big stop when Alec Martinez had an open net and the puck hit Price’s leg and back as he dove across the crease. But a lot of Vegas’ attempts did not get through, or the saves were relatively routine.

The two goals Price did give up were straight shots, but he was screened; one could argue he could have stopped the second one, but Alex Pietrangelo used the defensemen as a screen, so it’s likely Price didn’t have enough time to react after Pietrangelo changed the angle of the shot.

That being said, both goals were regular screened shots taken by Pietrangelo. There were no quadruple deflections or magical bounces, and the Knights didn’t need to score on a fifth rebound with Price flying through the air and only getting a piece of the puck.

That’s not to say that those goals won’t be required at some point, but there are methods the Knights can use to improve their odds of finding twine.

That’s why Vegas must continue to go to the net. On every shift.

Price will make almost every save when he is not screened, so the Golden Knights have to take his eyes away.

The Knights also have to get back to forcing him to move laterally the way they did in Game 1. He got across on the Martinez attempt, but there was plenty of net available for the taking, and it was one of a few Vegas chances in front of a yawning cage.

The game plan has been solid, the Knights just need to execute and capitalize on their chances.

Forward thinking

With the series shifting to Montreal, the Canadiens will have last change, which could affect on-ice matchups. DeBoer will still have some control over how he deploys his players, but it’s unclear how the Vegas lineup will shape up anyway given Stephenson’s day-to-day status.

William Carrier had a very strong game the other night, but Vegas’ fourth line got burned on the Armia goal. However, the fourth line was Vegas’ best as far as expected goals with a 58.07 percent expected goal share. The top two lines were the worst; part of that has to do with quality of competition, but it’s part of a larger problem.

The Knights have scored six goals in two games against Montreal; five of them have come from defensemen. The only exception was the Knights’ third goal in Game 1, which was a tap-in off the stick of Mattias Janmark.

That means the top six has zero goals in this series.

That has to change.

No matter what, the Knights have to start getting offense from the forwards, especially the top six.

Max Pacioretty will be playing in his former building in front of familiar fans against his former team, so it’s sure to be an emotional game for him. That’s a good thing, as he has yet to record a point in this series after managing seven against Colorado and recording a point in each of his first seven postseason games this year.

He and Mark Stone will need to step up. Stone has provided several key screens, and the second line has a combined five points, but Vegas needs Pacioretty to get going.

The keys to Game 3 are not very different than those for Game 2. The Knights just need to execute, and they can’t wait until the third period to do so.

How to watch

Time: 5 p.m.

TV: NBCSN USA Network (updated channel info)

Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM/1340 AM