Golden Knights go for the sweep tonight against Stars in Game 4 of Western Conference Final
The Florida Panthers defeated the Carolina Hurricanes on a last-second goal last night in Game 4 to complete the sweep and advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in franchise history.
The Vegas Golden Knights have a chance to follow suit tonight, but they have a significant obstacle to tackle first.
The Golden Knights may be 11-3 and winners of five straight in the postseason, but the elusive fourth win of the Western Conference Final is still up for grabs. The Dallas Stars will do everything they can to keep it that way.
The Stars will look to respond to their disastrous implosion in Game 3 that resulted in a two-game suspension, a $5,000 fine, an injury to a top player, an apology issued by the organization after fans lost their composure and, of course, a 4-0 loss that put them in a 3-0 hole.
The Stars are in do-or-die territory with their season on the line, and they will be without their captain.
The NHL Department of Player Safety issue a two-game suspension for Stars captain Jamie Benn for his dangerous cross-check to Golden Knights captain Mark Stone early in the first period of Game 3.
Benn declined to address the media after the game but answered questions yesterday prior to his meeting with Player Safety.
When asked what happened on the play, Benn said it was "Just [an] unfortunate play. I think I just need to be more responsible with my body [and] my stick. I put my team in a tough situation, so it's pretty unfortunate."
When asked if he would have done anything differently, Benn said, "Obviously, didn't want to take a five-minute penalty, but the game happens fast. Emotions are high; obviously, would have liked to not fall on him, and, I guess use my stick as a landing point."
Player Safety didn't quite see it that way.
"With Stone on the ice in front of him, Benn puts both hands on his stick, drops to his knees and drives his stick into the head and neck area of Stone with force," the official ruling explained. "This is cross-checking. It is important to note that Benn is in control of this play at all times and makes the decision to deliver a forceful cross-check to a prone player."
The explanation goes on to say, "This is simply an unnecessarily dangerous decision by Benn, and it is delivered with sufficient intent and force to merit supplemental discipline."
The result is a two-game suspension for Dallas' captain of 10 years and its second-leading scorer from the regular season (78 points).
Pete DeBoer and the Stars have to move forward without Benn, but the team could be without two top forwards with Evgenii Dadonov considered doubtful for tonight's game. Dadonov sustained an injury in the first period of Game 3 and did not return.
Luke Glendening almost certainly will come back into the lineup after serving as a healthy scratch in Game 3. The other forward could be Frederik Olofsson or a player from Dallas' AHL affiliate, the Texas Stars; DeBoer said he met with the general managers of both clubs to discuss options.
He also could elect to go with 11 forwards and seven defenseman, with Colin Miller drawing back into the lineup.
"Big hole, but you gotta find a way," DeBoer said. "It's that time of year. It's gonna be 'next guy up.' We're at home; I think guys are excited to play. We've got big motivation. One, not getting swept; two, trying to give Jamie Benn a chance to get back in the lineup again."
Benn would be eligible to return for Game 6, but the Golden Knights will try to end this much sooner. Vegas is 2-0 in elimination games this postseason and 8-5 all-time in Game 4 matchups.
Keys to the game
One thing DeBoer was clear about was his starting netminder.
"Oettinger's playing tomorrow night, so we'll just put that to rest," he said yesterday.
Oettinger was pulled in Game 3 after giving up three goals on five shots in the first 7:10 of the contest. It was the third time he's been pulled in his last eight games, though it was his shortest game of the postseason by more than 17 minutes.
The Golden Knights beat Oettinger cleanly three times, and he didn't look particularly sharp on any of them. On the first, he was slow to get across the crease even though Jack Eichel delayed with the puck. On Ivan Barbashev's goal off the rush, Oettinger overcommitted, leaving the net exposed. On William Carrier's goal, he simply was beaten by an unobstructed backhand shot; it was a nice shot, but that's a save a goalie has to make in the playoffs, especially when your team is down 2-0 in the series and 2-0 in the game. Oettinger yielded two goals in just 73 seconds in a must-win game on home ice before the first intermission.
But he has been a resilient netminder in his first full season as Dallas' No. 1. He had a remarkable performance in Game 7 against Seattle, stopping 23 of 24 shots and coming within 20 seconds of recording a shutout in an elimination game. He has bounced back from losses all year; in fact, he never lost back-to-back games in regulation during the regular season, and he didn't lose consecutive games in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
DeBoer didn't pull Oettinger the other night to send his team a message; Oettinger didn't seem focused, and the Golden Knights made the Stars pay.
But Oettinger feels good coming into tonight's matchup.
"I had a great skate today, kind of [the] first time in a long time that I've been able to put in a ton of work on a practice day, so I feel really good right now," the 24-year-old netminder said yesterday. "I just got back to the basics, and I'm just gonna take it one shot at a time for the rest of this series. It's the first team to four wins; they don't have that yet, so it's not over. I think every guy in this room believes we can come back."
Oettinger has the ability to steal a game for his team; the Golden Knights have to make sure that doesn't happen.
The best way to do that is to get off to a strong start and apply pressure from the get-go. The Golden Knights have not come out flat in this series, though their momentum and presence faded early in Game 2. That being said, the Golden Knights proved in Game 3 that they don't need to generate a ton of shots if they're opportunistic.
Puck management will be imperative early on, Vegas bench boss Bruce Cassidy said.
"That's how we want to play early on. Let them know we're coming, we're coming after them behind them; if there's an odd-man rush or a chance to make a play in front of them, we'll do it. But in general, that's been our mindset. We don't always get there, but that's what we want to do."
William Carrier stressed the importance of a good start.
"First [10 minutes will] be big for us," he said. "[The Stars are] going to have a pushback, ... come with a lot of energy; just got to manage that."
Vegas scored first in both elimination games this postseason, scoring less than a minute into the contest. That's not a necessity tonight, but the Golden Knights need to come out firing on all cylinders.
Defend, frustrate, attack
The Golden Knights frustrated the Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers, and they caused the Dallas Stars to unravel in Game 3.
A huge reason for that has been the team's sound defensive game, which features a steady stream of blocked shots, zone defense that prevents players from getting to the middle of the ice and a diligent focus on protecting the net-front.
The Golden Knights' entire blue line is both sizable and physical, which helps execute this strategy.
"I think our D play close to the front of the net," Cassidy said. "I think the teams that play a little bit more of a layered defense will probably have more blocks than maybe a man-to-man. ... That's certainly the way we play. ... Our group of defensemen have done it here for years, so I think it comes very natural to them."
That layered defense also limits Dallas' chances to score deflection goals in front.
"If you can choke off the play sooner, before they kind of roll it low to high, kill them behind the goal line, we've wanted to be more aggressive in those situations," Cassidy said. "Denying entries helps there. I think our forwards have done a good job recognizing they have to make it harder for [Dallas] ... to get it into that slot area. You can take away passing and shooting lanes.; I think we've been real cognizant of that."
Adin Hill, who has been sensational throughout this series, has been able to take care of the rest, making timely and underrated saves with a level of calm that has been impressive to witness.
"Momentum's huge in hockey, especially in the playoffs," Hill said after recording his first career playoff shutout. "It takes a team effort, and I thought that we didn't take a shift off tonight. Our commitment to the D-zone was huge, and we never let them get that kind of momentum going, and I think that's why they got so frustrated."
One of Vegas' greatest strengths is its depth. The combination of the stifling defense and the club's ability to roll four lines and three pairings that are all engaged and contributing to this effort makes Vegas a formidable opponent. Whether it's defensive defenseman Brayden McNabb or superstar forward Jack Eichel, everyone is chipping in.
Despite being a dominant force offensively throughout the postseason, Eichel has been fully committed to the defensive aspects of his game. It has made him a complete player who has been effective in all three zones; someone who can put the team on his back offensively, making highlight-reel passes from behind the goal line, but also someone who is willing to race down the ice on the backcheck to break up a play with effortless precision.
But he's not alone in his work ethic or determination.
"It's a buy-in throughout the lineup," Golden Knights defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "It's not one D pairing or one forward line. Yeah, there's certainly matchups that we use. But collectively, as a group, we're clogging up the middle of the ice and we're frustrating teams. Guys are paying a price. We're blocking shots when they need to be blocked, and [Hill] is doing his job when he needs to. When you have a buy-in up and down the lineup defensively like that, it's frustrating to play against."
The Golden Knights are boxing out, preventing players from getting to the middle of the ice and forcing opponents to work for their chances. Vegas also has done an excellent job limiting odd-man rushes.
"I think we've been pretty good at managing the puck and not turning it over," Cassidy said. "We're forcing [Dallas] to work through some checks or angles to join the rush, so that part of the game we're trying to neutralize as much as possible and make sure we take care of business in front of our net."
But it's not just Vegas' defensive efforts that are frustrating opponents.
When the Golden Knights establish their forecheck, it grinds away at other teams. It was evident later in the Edmonton series, and the Golden Knights are back at it against the Stars.
Vegas rearguard Nicolas Hague talked about what this does to an opponent over time.
"Our forwards have been absolute hounds on the forecheck," he said after Game 3. "I know as well as any defenseman that it's not fun going back there constantly having to break pucks out. You kind of get tired quickly when it keeps coming back at you. It makes the game a lot harder; you're wasting energy trying to break the puck out instead of moving through the neutral zone and playing offensively."
The Golden Knights got away from their forecheck for much of Game 2, but it was back in full swing Tuesday night on the road. Vegas' depth has made the forecheck unrelenting.
"It sucks when that happens, and our forwards have done a great job," Hague said. "They're just kind of a dog on a bone out there, constantly reloading and turning pucks over, but if there's no play to be made, it's right back behind the goal line and forces them to break it out again."
Adding to the frustration is the fact that when the Stars have made a mistake, the Golden Knights have been there to make them pay. It aided the Golden Knights' third-period comeback in Game 2, and it fueled their explosive start in Game 3.
"We're just playing as a team," Barbashev said after the game. "When you do things right, you get rewarded, and I think that's what we've been doing pretty much [all] playoffs. We're a really strong team, and we just play the right way."
Defending as a team, frustrating the Stars with a relentless 200-foot effort and capitalizing on chances has helped the Golden Knights win the first three games of the series, and it's what the Golden Knights need to do to get win No. 4.
Let the popcorn pop
The Stars' performance in Game 3 was, at times, embarrassing, and the fans joined in on the act by throwing trash, food and other assorted objects onto the ice. The officials elected to send the players to the locker rooms early and play the remaining 21.6 seconds of the second period at the start of the third on a clean sheet of ice.
The Stars organization – via President and CEO Brad Alberts – issued an apology for the fans who were involved.
It was just one of many things in Game 3 that the Golden Knights took in stride.
When Max Domi went after Hague with a cross-check and sucker punch at the end of the second period, Hague was laughing.
When Domi slashed Stone earlier in the game, which earned him a $5,000 fine, there was no retaliation.
When Hill walked down the tunnel to take the ice for the third period, he was showered with popcorn by a spectator. He went on to stop all 14 of Dallas' third-period shots and joked after the game, "I guess everything was just hitting me tonight."
To a man, the Golden Knights maintained their composure during Tuesday's debacle, and it paid dividends.
The cross-check on Stone was egregious enough to start a line brawl, but the Golden Knights took their five-minute major and made Dallas pay with a power-play strike.
"I thought we did a really good job of not letting it bother us, and we took advantage of that power play," Pietrangelo said. "We knew we wanted to get at least one on that five-minute power play, and we did. It wasn't an ideal power play up until that point, but you just find a way to get one on the board and kind of put the pressure on."
Nicolas Roy had a similar reaction.
"We wanted to make [Benn] pay for sure, seeing what he did there."
So did Cassidy.
"We're upset when we see that; he's our captain," Cassidy said. "But at the end of the day, they make a call that gives us a chance to make them pay for that penalty, and we did with one goal anyway, so we doubled our lead."
Jonathan Marchessault expressed the same message to ESPN's Emily Kaplan during the first intermission, and many others have since echoed those sentiments, including Stone himself.
"Not gonna sit here and say I loved it, but we got the five-minute power play," Stone said yesterday. "The refs handled it the way it should have been handled, and we got a big goal from it, got a ton of momentum for our team. I didn't love what transpired, but it got handled the right way; we stuck together as a team, and now the focus is on Game 4."
The Golden Knights struggled with discipline against Edmonton, and it cost them. That was not the case in Game 3, and that will be important to replicate in Game 4.
"We're going to keep trying to play hard between the whistles," Cassidy said after Game 3. "We had a good mindset. ... Credit to the guys for having the discipline to do that, because you can see not everyone does that. That game gets away from them a little bit probably because of that."
To a man, the Golden Knights were not phased, and that level-headed mindset will be an asset in what could be a heated showdown tonight in Dallas.
The Stars are going to try to make things happen and force Vegas to take penalties and abandon its game plan. The Golden Knights need to stay the course and stay loose, as they've done all year.
"It is what it is," Hague said. "It's going to be a physical game, and it's something we're never going to back down from. I think you can definitely see the frustration maybe boiling over a little bit, which is understandable. But I think it's just credit to us and how we've been playing. So we just have to stick with it here and close this series out."
For Vegas, the objective is pretty simple: win a hockey game.
"I think we're just trying to take it game by game; the job's not done," Shea Theodore said. "Normally, the fourth win's the hardest, so we're expecting a big push. They're going to be desperate, so we just have to keep our heads down and get the job done."
Ivan Barbashev – Jack Eichel – Jonathan Marchessault
Reilly Smith – William Karlsson – Nicolas Roy
Brett Howden – Chandler Stephenson – Mark Stone
William Carrier – Teddy Blueger – Keegan Kolesar
Alec Martinez – Alex Pietrangelo
Brayden McNabb – Shea Theodore
Nicolas Hague – Zach Whitecloud
Jason Robertson – Roope Hintz – Joe Pavelski
Joel Kiviranta – Max Domi – Tyler Seguin
Mason Marchment – Wyatt Johnston – Ty Dellandrea
Frederik Olofsson – Radek Faksa – Luke Glendening
Ryan Suter – Miro Heiskanen
Thomas Harley – Joel Hanley
Esa Lindell – Jani Hakanpaa
How to watch
Game 4: Golden Knights at Stars
When: 5 p.m. PT
Where: American Airlines Center – Dallas, TX
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM