NHL playoffs: Golden Knights blank Stars in heated Game 3

The Golden Knights are on the verge of advancing to the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in the franchise's brief history.

The Vegas Golden Knights took a 3-0 stranglehold over the Dallas Stars on Tuesday with a 4-0 victory in Game 3 of the Western Conference final.

Jonathan Marchessault, Ivan Barbashev, William Carrier and Alex Pietrangelo provided the offense for the Golden Knights, who moved to within one win of advancing to the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in the franchise's brief history. Goaltender Adin Hill made 34 saves for the shutout.

Dallas was forced to play shorthanded up front for much of the evening due to a pair of cross-checks. Captain Jamie Benn was given a game misconduct in the first period, while Max Domi received a 10-minute misconduct late in the second frame.

Stars starting goaltender Jake Oettinger was lifted seven minutes into the contest after surrendering three goals on five shots. Scott Wedgewood came on in relief and stopped 10 of 11 shots.

Vegas will look to finish the series in Game 4, which is set for Thursday in Dallas. But first, here are the major takeaways from Game 3.

The Golden Knights got the better of the Stars for the third consecutive game in Round 3 of the NHL playoffs. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Golden Knights got the better of the Stars for the third consecutive game in Round 3 of the NHL playoffs. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images)

Targeting Mark Stone was a time bomb that blew up on Stars, Benn (and the NHL?)

Scoring has generally been way up in the NHL the past two seasons. On the other hand, goals haven’t been so easy to come by during these skin-tight conference finals.

How much do you blame Benn for “losing it” for the Stars in Game 3 when he got ejected and handed the Golden Knights a major power-play opportunity? Certainly, it played a big role in the Stars’ atrocious start, as the deficit blew up from 1-0 to 2-0 via the major penalty. Before the Stars could gather their wits, it was 3-0 about 7:10 into Game 3.

Whatever weight you place on Benn cross-checking Stone, it was dangerous, reckless and very much worthy of that major penalty. Benn didn’t speak to the media after Game 3.

It also might have been a matter of time.

For one thing, this is not the first instance of Benn delivering a dangerous, high-profile cross-check on a star opponent. In the example below, Benn avoided consequences for a cross-check on Dylan Larkin of the Detroit Red Wings in 2021.

Maybe it was inevitable that a player finally caught Stone with a cross-check that went over the line?

Since at least the Golden Knights’ series against the Oilers, opponents have been shamelessly targeting Stone’s recently-surgically-repaired back. As per usual with the NHL, cross-checking Stone (often in that back area) translated to penalty roulette. In Game 2, Joe Pavelski may have felt like he was playing with house money when he got away with a shot on Stone.

As much as people border on poetic raving about the hockey “code,” it’s fascinating that the culture provides so much latitude for actions soaked in unsportsmanlike conduct and “intent to injure.”

Sometimes, moments like these boil over. During the Oilers series, Golden Knights defenseman Alex Pietrangelo was targeted by the likes of Evander Kane, then he snapped and delivered a nasty slash on Leon Draisaitl. For all we know, that affected Draisaitl (whose offense dried up from there), but we know that ugly moment happened (and Pietrangelo was suspended).

Ideally, this would be an opportunity to learn from a mistake. Actually, it’s a series of mistakes, because the NHL shouldn’t condone cheap shots of any kind, particularly those that often target specific spots on injured stars.

You can’t really say there were immediate lessons learned, though, as Max Domi delivered a dangerous cross-check of his own a period later. Such progress might not be an overnight sort of success.

Game 3 latest reminder of unpredictable playoff goaltending

Sergei Bobrovsky morphing from $10-million cautionary tale to his peak two-time Vezina form is probably the story of these playoffs. The dangerous thing about playoff surprises is that people insist on attempting to decode the indiscernible.

Indeed, you can just observe Bobrovsky’s path and get a glimpse of how unpredictable modern NHL goaltending can be, especially in the playoffs. Bobrovsky began the postseason being a backup to journeyman NHL/AHL ‘tweener Alex Lyon, and it was the proper call by the Panthers. After the Bruins got to Lyon, Bobrovsky rediscovered elite form.

You can debate just how great Bobrovsky has been but that’s a matter of splitting hairs between “great” and “all-time great” runs. The bottom line is that just about no one saw this coming.

(If the Panthers expected it, they would’ve plugged Bobrovsky back in for Game 1 against the Bruins.)

The 2023 Western Conference final only extends that playoff goalie uncertainty.

As far back as the second round, Jake Oettinger was easily the best choice for the top remaining netminder. By simple and underlying metrics, he grades out as one of the best young goalies in the NHL. Despite being just 24 years old, he already has a strong playoff performance on his resume stemming from carrying an overwhelmed Stars team to overtime in Game 7 against the Flames last year. Generally, the best debates weren’t about Oettinger vs. the rest of the playoff goalie field, and more about how he compares to the rare smattering of franchise goalies in the NHL such as Igor Shesterkin, Ilya Sorokin and Juuse Saros.

Well, none of those goalies made it beyond the first round, and Oettinger instead uncomfortably paralleled the playoff peaks and valleys of a Stuart Skinner. Just 7:10 into Game 3, Peter DeBoer felt that he had to pull Oettinger for Scott Wedgewood. That marked the third time Oettinger’s been pulled in his last eight playoff games, and his last two short nights would barely combine for half of a game (Oettinger only made it 24:23 into Game 6 against the Seattle Kraken).

The Carrier goal that ended his night was one you simply cannot allow in the playoffs.

It’s almost as if there was something of a goalie swap, as the Golden Knights are receiving tremendous goaltending from Adin Hill.

Hill, 27, set a new career-high this season by appearing in 27 games. There’s little if any shame in the label “career backup,” but that description sure seemed appropriate considering Hill wasn’t the Golden Knights’ first choice even among an injury-depleted crew of goalies. They began this postseason with Laurent Brossoit … another solid goalie you’d also likely describe as a career backup.

Runs like these might just upgrade Hill to, say, a 1B/platoon option. If nothing else, he’s shown flashes of brilliance, and boasts prototypical size at 6-foot-6. Heading into Game 3, Hill already sported a sparkling .930 save percentage. Those numbers only got better (save percentage is now .940) after Hill pitched a 34-save shutout one day after Bobrovsky authored his own.

The Golden Knights finished with the best record in the Western Conference by creating the sort of nurturing structure that made them essentially goalie-proof. That said, even the most clamped-down defense needs a netminder to make some saves, and Hill keeps flourishing.

No, you didn’t see it coming. If you want to try to recreate it, the best strategy may be to play tight defense and cross your fingers for plenty of luck.

It might instead be better just to let the chaos wash over you, really.

Golden Knights present multiple Conn Smythe candidates

Those who chose the Golden Knights to beat the Oilers often emphasized Vegas’s depth, so it’s not shocking that you can make a variety of Conn Smythe arguments for the club. For the sake of some simplicity, let’s cross off Hill (who’s only been in for a portion of games) along with defensemen Shea Theodore and Pietrangelo (key players who maybe lack the sexiest stats that win playoff MVPs).

Even then, there are a variety of heroes. It’s probably easiest to group them based on running mates.

Ivan Barbashev - Jack Eichel - Jonathan Marchessault

It was tempting to focus on the duo of Eichel and Marchessault most of all until Barbashev collected three points in Game 3. The other two pieces of that dominant line deserve the most credit, though. Marchessault scored a debilitating 1-0 goal in Game 3, something that may challenge claims that the Stars “only” lost because of Benn being a bonehead. In general, Marchessault keeps scoring the eye-catching goals that burn into voters’ minds. He sent Game 2 to overtime and sent the Oilers packing with a stunning natural hat trick.

The closer you look, Eichel stands above not just his red-hot linemates, but as the best Vegas Conn Smythe choice so far. Over and over again, Eichel keeps making subtle plays that advance the Golden Knights in transition, whether it’s creating a rush opportunity or getting them out of trouble. You don’t have to nerd out to absorb all of his brilliance, either, as he’s comfortably been a point-per-game player.

Mark Stone - Chandler Stephenson

We all know hockey players are tough. Still, there’s a gulf between being tough and managing to produce in the playoffs while clearly hurt. One way or another, Stone keeps getting it done. You can even argue that opponents get a little too focused at going after him, possibly getting off their own game in the process.

Stone’s heady play has been a boon for Vegas in every phase of the game. While Stone’s skating has long been a weakness, Stephenson regularly stands out as one of Vegas’s fleetest threats.

William Karlsson - Reilly Smith

Eichel, Stone and Marchessault figure to get the first mentions in Conn Smythe conversations. But don’t forget about the other pieces of “The Misfit Line,” especially Karlsson. It’s not that hard to think of Karlsson because he’s already in the double digits in points. What really makes Karlsson a boutique choice is that he’s quietly developed into a tremendous two-way center. Really, you can argue that Karlsson’s actually carrying more of a defensive burden than Stone.

Here’s the elevator pitch: Karlsson can be so disruptive that the Oilers seemingly avoided a matchup with Connor McDavid, possibly even cutting into No. 97’s ice time.

At times, a team’s Conn Smythe favorite ends up a no-brainer. In the case of the Golden Knights, it could swing any number of ways. They’re just that deep.