Takeaways from Game 3: How Panthers made it a series

So we’ve got a series after all.

A change of scenery and return home helped the Florida Panthers recapture their mojo as the No. 8 seed in the East got on the board with a 3-2 overtime win to pull within 2-1 of the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final.

Florida’s Matthew Tkachuk scored with 2:13 remaining in regulation to force overtime, then Carter Verhaeghe struck at 4:27 of the extra period to win it.

What did we learn in Game 3? What can the Panthers take forward to tighten things even further and how can the Golden Knights strengthen their position?

ESPN reporters Kristen Shilton, Ryan S. Clark, Greg Wyshynski and Emily Kaplan check in with their takeaways from Game 3:

Help from the back end

Florida absolutely needed its defense to start contributing offensively. Brandon Montour got things rolling with a quick strike in Game 3. Vegas had three goals from its blueliners going into the night while the Panthers had zero (and, well, the whole team had only four total). Montour delivered five goals in Florida’s come-from-behind first-round series win over Boston, but hadn’t lit the lamp since Game 1 of the second round against Toronto.

Montour said Wednesday he felt the chances were coming and would multiply from there when they did. The new dad made good on his word with the opening salvo in Game 3. It was what the Panthers needed on all fronts — their back end getting involved upfront, Montour appearing on the score sheet after a 10-game pointless drought and Florida grabbing an early lead. — Shilton

Bob is just fine

If there was a question mark about goaltending entering Game 3 — after Sergei Bobrovsky was pulled in Game 2, following his fourth goal allowed and eighth in the young series — Panthers coach Paul Maurice didn’t want to hear it. Maurice accused reporters of inventing stories because they had too much time on their hands with an additional off-day as the series shifted to Florida. He also reminded the media that 48 hours prior, many were wondering if it was possible to split the Conn Smythe — for playoff MVP — between Bobrovsky and Matthew Tkachuk.

So no, the Panthers weren’t turning away from the guy who got them to this point, the highest-paid goalie in the league. Bobrovsky rewarded that faith with an overall sound performance. He made some especially strong saves to keep the score at 1-1 in the second period. Florida wasn’t going to get a better performance from backup Alex Lyon, who hadn’t started a game since April 21 in the first round against Boston. — Kaplan

Marchessault marches on

It’s generally at least a little funny when the “Vegas franchise record!” tag gets thrown around because, you know, the Golden Knights have existed for only six years. Nevertheless, Jonathan Marchessault continuing his incredible postseason with a franchise-record eight-game postseason point streak is impressive. Marchessault assisted on Mark Stone’s power-play goal in the first, and added to his success with a second-period score, his 13th of the playoffs. That made him the third player in the past 35 years to score in each of the first three games of a Cup Final (along with Steve Yzerman and Jake Guentzel).

Marchessault appears to have caught the hockey world by surprise with his playoff prowess and being able to etch a permanent mark on the books is a worthy reward for the forward’s efforts. There’s no doubt that Marchessault’s production will continue to be a significant factor in the Golden Knights’ success as the series carries on. — Shilton

A Conn-vincing argument

Call him Conn-athan Marchessault. The Vegas forward finished Game 3 with the team lead in goals and points. Mark Stone’s 4-on-3 power-play goal came on a Marchessault pass from the blue line. Marchessault’s second-period power-play tally gave the Golden Knights the lead. It was his ninth goal on the road in the playoffs and the fifth straight road game in which he tallied a goal. The sportsbooks have made him the wagering favorite for the Conn Smythe and for good reason: The Vegas forward went from two points in his first seven playoff games to becoming the pacesetter for a team two wins away from the Stanley Cup. — Wyshynski

Vegas’ super power …

Vegas’ consistency on special teams has been a game-changer in this series. The Golden Knights had two power-play opportunities in the first period alone and Mark Stone capitalized on a 4-on-3 chance late in the frame to deflate what had been a pretty solid start all around for Florida.

Vegas had been on its heels for plenty of the first period as Florida made it difficult for the Golden Knights to even complete a breakout pass. But what has separated Vegas from the Panthers — and may well continue to do so — is making the most of what’s given to them. The Knights’ red-hot power play is a great example of how quickly a momentum shift can happen when the stakes are this high. — Shilton

… and Florida’s prolonged outage

Three shots on goal. That’s all the Panthers’ power play was able to muster in their first three chances in Game 3. For all the items that have proved to be an issue for the Panthers in the Cup Final, a lack of power-play production has been chief among them. A lack of shots compounds how the man-advantage went from a plus on Florida’s road to the finals only to become a serious issue in the bid to win the first title in franchise history.

The Panthers were 0-for-3 going into the third period. In total? The Panthers are 0-for-10 on the power play in the series. That’s a jarring revelation for a team that finished with the No. 10 power play in the regular season and had a 27.9% postseason success rate coming into the series.

Another statistic that amplifies the Panthers’ struggles: The Golden Knights were 14th out of the 16 teams that reached the postseason on the penalty kill with a 63% success rate before facing the Panthers. — Clark

Tough enough

The parallels between Jack Eichel and Matthew Tkachuk have been well-documented in this series. Two U.S.-born superstars, acquired from the teams that originally drafted them, who had transformative effects on the Golden Knights and Panthers, respectively. They’re scoring leaders for their teams, they play with swagger. Two sides of the same coin.

That extends to the physical punishment they’ve taken in the series. Recall in Game 2 when Eichel attempted to skate up ice with the puck and ended up getting obliterated by Tkachuk on a check. Eichel skated off to the concern of fans and teammates. But he returned the following period and assisted on a goal.

Just 5:54 into the first period of Game 3, Tkachuk received a pass in his own zone near the blue line. As he turned up ice, a streaking Keegan Kolesar put his shoulder into Tkachuk, knocking the Panthers star to the ice. When Tkachuk returned to the Panthers bench, he was looked at by a team trainer. He returned for a shift during a Panthers power play, but then left the ice and the bench for the rest of the period. He didn’t come out for the start of the second period, but eventually returned and skated regular shifts, while enduring punishment from Knights defenders.

In both cases, the toughness of these two pacesetting superstars was Cup-worthy. — Wyshynski

Sizing things up

Given what Marchessault is doing and the fact that the NHL draft is later this month, this seems like a good time to reignite the conversation around size. Watching a 5-foot-9 man on skates fly around and terrorize a team that used to employ him makes for interesting theater. But it also raises a question about the importance of size.

Look at this year’s Cup Final. Elite Prospects lists the Golden Knights as the NHL’s fifth-tallest team while the Panthers rank 29th. They’re evidence that teams can have contrasting size yet still be in a position to compete for the championship.

Now consider this year’s top prospects. Connor Bedard, the presumed No. 1 pick, stands about 5-10. Matvei Michkov, who is expected to be a top-three pick, also is listed at 5-10. Will Smith, who has a chance to be a top-five pick, is just under 6 feet. Those three along with Ryan Leonard, Gabriel Perreault, Brayden Yager, Zach Benson and Oliver Moore are all examples of top forwards in this year’s draft class who have been listed at 5-11 or shorter. — Clark

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