Another hero emerges as balanced attack has Golden Knights on verge of Stanley Cup

It was Chandler Stephenson's turn to play hero for the Vegas Golden Knights, while Mark Stone and Adin Hill also put up monster performances in Game 4.

Chandler Stephenson was a beast for the Golden Knights in Game 4. (Getty)

During the opening game of the Stanley Cup Final, the Vegas Golden Knights flipped the Florida Panthers’ formula for success. In a comprehensive rout, it became apparent the Golden Knights were a powerhouse hiding in plain sight, holding true to the three maxims of playoff hockey.

Vegas lost its nerve in Game 3, as Matthew Tkachuk and Carter Verhaeghe put Florida on its back in a comeback victory. And in a pivotal Game 4, the Golden Knights looked like they were about to skate the Panthers off the ice, took two parting blows, survived and advanced, and are one victory away from lifting the Cup after holding on for a 3-2 victory on Saturday.

Chandler Stephenson — whose mid-career growth is emblematic of the Golden Knights’ status as perennial power from their inception — scored twice, while captain Mark Stone was arguably the best skater on the ice, crushing his opponents while working as an effective shutdown unit in equal measure. Stephenson and Stone were the story in Game 4 from the outset of the contest.

As Tkachuk headed to the bench, the Panthers froze and the Golden Knights immediately pounced as Stephenson slipped behind their defense, received a perfect link-up from Zach Whitecloud and beat Sergei Bobrovsky clean on a breakaway. If you thought the Golden Knights were affected from blowing a golden, no pun intended, opportunity in Game 3, Stephenson’s response punctuated the idea that they’ve been the superior team all along.

Stephenson was a bit player on the 2017-18 Stanley Cup-winning Washington Capitals but during his four seasons with the Golden Knights, particularly the last two, he’s become a 65-point scorer, capable of playing top-six minutes while blanketing the team’s best attack. His speed, lateral quickness and tenacity flustered the Panthers from breaking through, especially through the opening two periods.

Stone, widely considered among the NHL’s top defensive forwards, was the game’s best playmaker, surveying the ice before expertly distributing passes throughout the night. No one is going to compare him to Nikola Jokic, but in many ways, he’s taken the best qualities of the presumptive NBA Finals MVP. Stephenson, Stone and Brett Howden combined for a 68 percent share of the expected goals at 5-on-5 in ten minutes and 42 seconds together and despite getting outshot, they were a menacing presence throughout the contest.

Conventional thinking suggested that if the Panthers were to win the series, Sergei Bobrovsky would’ve remained in all-world form, making life impossible for the Golden Knights’ relatively balanced attack. And yet goaltending still remains the most difficult element to judge series-to-series, let alone year-to-year. Hill, the 27-year-old with little fanfare prior to this season, may be the Conn Smythe Trophy winner if the Golden Knights close the series out. He made an outstanding save on Matthew Tkachuk in the first period and helped keep the relentless, opportunistic Panthers attack at bay.

Florida found new life after Aleksander Barkov wired a one-timer of his own from a Brandon Montour feed but when the Panthers captain almost scored his second of the period, Hill shut the door on a high-danger, game-tying attempt. Sam Bennett had the game-tying goal inches away with four minutes left but a sprawling Hill pushed the puck away from his stick just in time. Montour, a constant source of offense from the Panthers blue line throughout the series, wired a slapshot through traffic with an empty net but Hill once again shut the door.

Golden Knights defenseman Alex Pietrangelo logged a Herculean, three-minute plus shift in the final frame but in a fit of exhaustion, roofed the puck over the glass with 17 seconds remaining, providing the Panthers with their lone power-play opportunity of the evening. Montour fed Carter Verhaeghe, the Game 3 overtime hero for a one-time bullet and Hill sprawled for another save.

Tkachuk, who has established himself as one of the NHL’s most clutch players this postseason, tossed the puck towards the net with the clock expiring, but Hill still provided a valiant defense as the Golden Knights held on for a pivotal Game 4 victory.

Credit goes to the Golden Knights’ unheralded players as well. Nicolas Hague, a towering force on the back end, was rewarded with two assists. Hague does all the small things well, he facilitates a ton of breakouts and though he’s not known for his offensive ability, his rebound directly led to William Karlsson’s game-winner.

Whitecloud, another underrated defender, sent a perfect pass for Stephenson’s tone-setting breakaway goal. Whitecloud and Alec Martinez are likely laboring after four blocked shots each.

Vegas can win any type of game and through 40 minutes, it looked like it was about to roll to its second blowout victory of the series. In some ways, it was an ideal mix of their star players rising to the occasion, their depth players elevating their games at the right time and outstanding goaltending in the clutch.

This year’s 111-point Golden Knights can win any type of game, and they just need one more victory for their first Cup coronation.