The Golden Knights didn’t just take a stranglehold on their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series with their 3-2 win over the Kings on the road, they showed maturity well beyond their years.
Vegas took every punch the Kings could throw at them Sunday night, realizing Los Angeles would come out motivated to erase a two-game series deficit in front of its home crowd at Staples Center and biding their time to pull out the win.
With their sell-out crowd behind them, the Kings took an early 1-0 lead and outhit the Golden Knights, 28-13. Goaltender Jonathan Quick seemed unbeatable through 40 minutes, stopping all 17 of Vegas’ shots, and a Kings' win to tighten the series seemed inevitable.
“No one started panicking,” Golden Knights forward Pierre-Edouard 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.”
With seconds left in the first period, Jonathan Marchessault hit Kings star defenseman Drew Doughty with an illegal high stick that sent Doughty’s helmet crashing to the ice. Doughty leaned in with a toothless smile and clapped his hands in Marchessault’s face and the Kings’ crowd roared.
Still, the Golden Knights kept their composure.
The expansion franchise may lack the playoff pedigree and overflowing trophy case that the Kings have, but they were the team with enough awareness to let the Kings punch themselves out and wait for a moment to strike.
“When they were coming hard we kept it steady, then at one point we realized, all right, let’s try to get another step, and another step,” Bellemare said. “Then suddenly our game started to flow a little bit better and we started creating more turnovers.”
Vegas came out in the third period and scored three straight goals to stun the Kings and the 18,000 in attendance.
Cody Eakin struck first with his first goal of the playoffs, rifling a wrist shot past Quick to tie the game 1-1. Moments later, James Neal danced around a defender and slotted the puck underneath the goalie's pads to give Vegas its first lead.
With the Kings reeling, Reilly Smith fed William Karlsson in the slot to give the Golden Knights a comfortable 3-1 lead with 5:16 left in the game.
“It was two games to none so we knew they’d come out and bring everything they had in the first period, and they definitely did,” Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant said.
Vegas came out of it with a 3-0 lead in the series, on the verge of eliminating their Pacific Division rival and better off for the experience. From the double-overtime thriller on Friday night to a come-from-behind win in Los Angeles, the Golden Knights have proven they have what it takes to win in the playoffs.
“You need that adversity and that’s one of the things we talked about in the locker room between the second and third periods is that you’re going to face adversity in the playoffs,” defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “There’s no way to get around it. You just have to make sure that you get yourself mentally prepared.”