Game 3 was going to be nasty, and the Golden Knights knew it. With the Kings down 2-0 and the series leaving Vegas, where the Knights have been so good at home (the “Vegas Flu” is real, but so is their home-crowd advantage), Los Angeles was going to come out pesty and physical, finishing their checks, talking a ton of shit, and just being all-around infuriating. All with the express intention of irritating the playoff-inexperienced Golden Knights enough to get them off their game. It worked. For two periods.
Vegas came back with three goals in the third to win 3-2 and is a game away from a sweep, but it looked iffy there for a while. The Kings, true to plan (and with Drew Doughty back in the lineup after his suspension), played hard and rough.
“We knew what they were going to come out and do,” James Neal said. “They were hard on us. They were physical, a heavy team that you’d expect. Kind of weathered the storm a bit at the start.”
Kyle Clifford and William Carrier dropped the gloves, a rarity for the postseason, though the two were separated by officials before throwing punches. Erik Haula, incensed over being checked to the ice by Anze Kopitar, butt-ended Kopitar in the face:
Doughty took at run at Jonathan Marchessault, who retaliated and got called for high-sticking—to which Doughty applauded:
All the while, the Kings were sitting on an early lead and were going wholly unthreatened. Vegas’s game had no flow. But they did have patience.
“We’re not going to get the calls if we’re kind of retaliating, so the best way to do it is push through it, skate through it, skate through their checks, skate through the adversity, and we did a good job of that in the third,” Cody Eakin said.
This was certainly not his primary intention when GM George McPhee took a handful of veterans in the expansion draft, but having older, experienced players matters very much in the playoffs, when losing your temper can mean losing the game. “A lot of guys on our team have been in those situations before,” Neal noted, “and won in them before.”
Vegas iced just five players in this game that were born in the 1980s, but those veterans—Neal, David Perron, Marc-Andre Fleury, Deryk Engelland, and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare—have relatively extensive playoff experience, and know how to keep their heads when opponents are trying to rattle them. Crucially, Vegas’s locker-room leaders were able to calm their younger teammates and talk them into going back to what had worked so well in the first two games of this series.
“No one started panicking,” Bellemare said. “There are three or four guys that talk in between the periods and they were saying ‘boys we’re fine.’ Coach came in and told us ‘I hope you guys knew they were going to come hard,” and we knew that. We are in their building and we knew they’d come hard but it’s tough to do 60 minutes of that.”
The rope-a-dope seemed to work. Cody Eakin tied things up early in the period, and then, with 5:37 remaining, Neal, providing so much more than just advice, put the Golden Knights on top.
Just 21 seconds later, William Karlsson buried a great pass from Reilly Smith following a faceoff to seal things up.
That’s three goals in an 8:34 stretch, and, notably, Vegas did not take a third-period penalty until they had seized a two-goal lead. Kopitar got one back with 2:04 remaining, but Fleury held on for the win.
Game 4 is Tuesday night, and Vegas will be looking to close out the sweep. And while this feels weird to say about an expansion team, I’m not sure there’s anything the desparate Kings can throw at the Golden Knights that they haven’t seen before.