FORT LAUDERDALE -- The Vegas Golden Knights were minutes away from taking Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on Thursday before the Florida Panthers capped a furious rally late in regulation to force overtime and ultimately dump Vegas 3-2.
A win would have given the Golden Knights a 3-0 stranglehold on the series and put them one win away from the first Cup victory in franchise history.
Instead, the Panthers cut their deficit in half ahead of Game 4 on Saturday. Despite the setback, Vegas still believes it is firmly in the Cup Final driver's seat.
"Yeah, I think so," Brayden McNabb said Friday of the Golden Knights being in control. "We've got Game 4 [coming up]. Go win Game 4, it's 3-1. That's a pretty big lead. They got a little momentum off winning the last game. It ends after that game. Both teams have a chance to regroup. We know what's at stake for Game 4 and it's a big game for us."
Vegas fell behind early in Game 3 after Panthers' defenseman Brandon Montour opened the scoring. The Golden Knights used a pair of power-play goals from Mark Stone and Jonathan Marchessault to take a 2-1 advantage deep into the third period. Florida's net was empty when forward Matthew Tkachuk capitalized at 6-on-5 with three minutes remaining in regulation to even the score. Carter Verhaeghe acted as overtime hero with the game winner.
The missed opportunity at a third consecutive victory was tough to swallow for the Golden Knights. Forward William Karlsson admitted he didn't get to sleep until "3, 3:30" after leaving the rink. By Friday morning, though, Karlsson and his teammates were refreshed with renewed confidence.
"I think we've managed to stay composed throughout these playoffs," Karlsson said. "I never expected it to go super easy, and it should not be. To win is a grind, and sometimes you lose. But all that matters is the next game and focus on that. And I think we've done a great job throughout the playoffs after a loss, just staying composed and go in for the next game and try to win that one instead."
Golden Knights coach Bruce Cassidy showed no signs of panic either. He kept his group off the ice and even away from the rink entirely Friday. He called it a "mental reset" for Vegas, a chance to mend "a few bumps and bruises" and avoid even doing much video work. Cassidy's players embraced the recovery mindset knowing it could pay dividends Saturday.
"I think day-to-day and game-to-game, it's all different in how it goes for your body," McNabb said. "You're in such a routine of playing every other day almost. Your body and mind are used to that. You just do what you can to [improve], eat properly. Hop in the cold tub, whatever it is. Treatment. It's just that time of year."
The Cup Final is, after all, the end of a long road, just with the stakes at the peak. Even so, Cassidy said the Golden Knights aren't "going to change a lot; we don't need to," which his approach to the off-day seemed to show.
"The sour taste in terms of the immediateness of [the loss] is gone. It's time to turn the page and start preparing for Game 4," Cassidy said. "We addressed the guys today. It was a little bit of what's in front of us and not so much ... talking about [the Panthers'] forecheck, their F2s, you know what I mean? We're not getting into X's and O's today. It's more about big picture, where we're at. It wasn't a long message."
Vegas likely didn't require one. The Golden Knights dominated Florida in Games 1 and 2, outscoring them 12-4 and frustrating some of the Panthers' star players. Vegas has also been winning the special teams battle, going 6-for-17 on the man advantage so far while Florida is 0-for-12. The Golden Knights showed their mettle in that respect in Game 3 to pull ahead after falling behind.
Even though Vegas was on the losing end, the team's recipe will -- for better or worse -- remain intact.
"We certainly feel the first three games, there's been way more good than bad," Cassidy said. "So, I don't think it'll be a tough sell [to stay the course]. The guys know what's at stake. It'll be predominantly what we've been doing. But obviously every game, win or lose, you're still looking at a few things we can do better. Their top line was all over the score sheet, so that's the first area we'll look at. [Sergei] Bobrovsky making big saves, we just have to keep shooting. There's not a whole lot that will change there."