Golden Knights are loose heading into decisive Game 5

Vegas, which owns a 3-1 series lead over Florida, can clinch its first Stanley Cup with a win at home Tuesday night.

LAS VEGAS — On Tuesday night, the Vegas Golden Knights are going to have the opportunity to do something many were hoping but few were expecting back in September.

They’ll be playing for the Stanley Cup.

Let that sink in for a moment. 

Five years removed from their inaugural season of 2017-18 which saw them set records for an expansion team and make the Stanley Cup Final only to fall to the Washington Capitals in five games, the Golden Knights need just one more win and the Cup will be theirs. 

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Three chances to win one hockey game, two of which will be played at home at T-Mobile Arena. But as any player or coach will tell you, the fourth game is always the hardest to win. And don’t think for a second the Florida Panthers, who are down 3-1 in the series, are going to concede anything. Not as long as Matthew Tkachuk can be on the ice raising all sorts of havoc while obviously performing at less than 100%. 

No, this will be a challenge. But the Knights have something important in their favor — experience. Six players have their name inscribed on the Cup (Alec Martinez, Alex Pietrangelo, Chandler Stephenson, Ivan Barbashev, Jonathan Quick, and Phil Kessel) and they know what it takes to clear that final hurdle. And even though Kessel hasn’t played since the opening round of the playoffs against Winnipeg, he’s there as a sounding board in case anyone needs advice. Ditto for Quick, who has been backing up goaltender Adin Hill after Hill took over in the Edmonton series for the injured Laurent Brossoit.

The mood in the Vegas dressing room Monday was light with a sprinkling of cautious optimism. Nobody wants to say anything to get the Panthers fired up. At the same time, everyone wants to embrace the opportunity before them. They know the Cup will be in the house. They know the crowd will be off-the-charts loud from the moment pregame warmups begin. They’ll hear the “We want the Cup!” chants and you’d like to think they’ll feed off the energy of the building, where some are willing to pay as much as five figures on the secondary ticket market to be inside T-Mobile Arena.

Nobody on Monday was talking about parade routes or their day with the Cup, which each member of the winning team gets to enjoy in the summer, or a potential trip to the White House. That discussion is for after the team takes care of business. 

“Everybody seems loose,” Barbashev said. “We know if we play our game, good things will happen.”

The stands were packed at City National Arena Monday for what everyone hoped would be the last time they see their team practice until September. It wasn’t a long workout, more like a gameday morning skate where fun was the watchword.

When asked how he thought it went out on the ice, defenseman Shea Theodore responded with one word, “Perfect.”

But as this series has evolved heading into Game 5, several things are clearly evident: The Golden Knights are the faster team. They’re also the more physical team. They’ve been the smarter and more under-control team when it comes to handling their emotions. They’ve had the better goaltending and better special teams.

The Panthers, who came within a second of tying Game 4 and possibly the series after trailing 3-0 in the second period, are down to their last of their nine or however many lives a Cat of their ilk have. They’re a banged-up bunch and are frustrated as well. 

History is not on Florida’s side. Only once has a team come back from a 3-1 deficit in the history of the Cup Final — the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs — who rallied from 0-3 to beat Detroit. Unless something changes dramatically, those Leafs will remain the lone comeback kids.

So if you’re Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy, and you’ve pushed the right buttons virtually all season, how do you deal with the emotional aspect of such a monumental opportunity? Do you keep things the way they’ve been all year, with the room being largely light-hearted and fun? Do you even remind your guys of what’s on the line and embrace the pressure that comes with all this? Do you even say anything?

“The guys are in good spirits,” said Cassidy, who described his personal feelings of the moment as anxiousness, not nervousness. “Why wouldn’t they be?

“I like our group’s maturity. Some guys will likely be nervous, especially those who haven’t been in this position before. But our experienced guys will certainly talk to them.”

You can try and equate it with a game in January against Arizona but the players aren’t about to buy that. They know this is the moment each of them has prepared their entire lives for, have dreamed about since skating on a pond or playing in their driveway as little kids. They’re aware of the magnitude of what they’re dealing with.

“You need to take the same approach as the other games,” said Martinez, who has two Cup rings from his time in Los Angeles with the Kings. “Having a few guys who’ve been there before certainly helps. But you don’t know what it’s like until you go through it.”

Stephenson remembered his time in 2018 with the Washington Capitals who were leading the Knights 3-1 heading into Game 5 at T-Mobile Arena. He said the Caps stayed in the moment.

“I think everyone was trying to keep things as normal as possible,” Stephenson recalled. “Everyone knew what was at stake and everyone tried to take it as another game. One period at a time.”

As for any additional pressure on the Golden Knights, Stephenson said that comes with the territory in this kind of situation. 

“There’s a little bit of pressure, but there was pressure last game,” he said. “There was pressure throughout. So you have to try and treat it as another game.” 

The Panthers may not have that luxury. This is it for them. Lose Tuesday and you’re done. All that great hockey they’ve played during the past two months will have gone for naught. They’ll say they’re loose but the truth is, the pressure of staying alive against a superior team is enormous, particularly when your lineup is not at full strength.

“Florida is a good hockey club,” Martinez said. “For us, it’s about getting to your game as quickly as possible.”

As he took his team’s temperature Monday, Cassidy liked the reading on his coaching thermometer.

“Overall, I feel our game is in a good place,” Cassidy said. “I feel like we’ll be on our game and play well. Will it be good enough? We’ll see.”