Chandler Stephenson knows what this is like.
Five years ago, he and his Washington Capitals teammates went into Las Vegas and won the Stanley Cup, beating the Golden Knights in Game 5 of the final. Now he’s on the Golden Knights, who leave Florida on the verge of winning their first championship.
“It’s a different game than the other ones: There’s a lot more emotion, a lot more everything,” Stephenson said. “It’s one win away from a lot of dreams for a lot of guys.”
A dream they’re trying not to think about — at least not yet.
Vegas can hoist the Stanley Cup as soon as Tuesday by beating the Panthers on home ice. But the immediate task for players and coaches is not to dwell on how close they are.
Veteran defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who captained the St. Louis Blues to their first title in franchise history four years ago, said it’s possible to overthink things in this situation.
His approach now?
“Try and get your brain away from it,” Pietrangelo said. “Get some rest, spend some time with our families and get ready to go back to work.”
The work so far has been nearly immaculate. Vegas has clearly been the better team in the final against Florida, and absent a late comeback in Game 3 might have been flying home Sunday with the Cup.
But the job isn’t done yet, and coach Bruce Cassidy knows all too well what it’s like to be one win away. His Boston Bruins lost to Pietrangelo’s Blues in seven games in 2019, so he’s not satisfied with getting to this point, no matter how well his team has played thus far.
“We’ll hit the ice and we’ll work on some things we feel we can do better from the previous four games and keep our rhythm up and get our touches in and heart rate up, etc., and prepare for the last one,” Cassidy said Sunday. “I think our preparation this time will be similar to what we’ve done with every other game. We know it’s a close-out game. I don’t have to tell the players that. They know what’s at stake.”
At stake, the dream Stephenson and a few of his teammates have lived out. Pietrangelo, Ivan Barbashev, Alec Martinez and backup goaltender Jonathan Quick have lifted the Cup before, while the rest of their teammates who have played this postseason have not.
Many have been on long runs — the six original Knights players who lost to Stephenson and the Capitals in 2018 — plus guys such as captain Mark Stone, who reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final in 2017 with Ottawa. Stone does not expect to alter his approach after it has worked so well so far.
“We understand the magnitude of the process, but we’re going to go home and take the game as if it’s one game for us,” Stone said after winning Game 4 Saturday. “We ain’t changing anything. We’ll make minor adjustments to our game, for sure, but we want to continue to play our brand of hockey and be ready to go.”
The Panthers have to do something to change the tide of the series. They scored twice to cut into a three-goal deficit in Game 4, but their comeback bid fell short to put them on the brink of elimination.
Florida erased a 3-1 series deficit in the first round against Boston, which set NHL records for the most wins and points in a regular season. That experience becomes valuable now as the Panthers try to become the first team to win the final after falling behind 3-1 since 1942.
“You draw on your routine from the last time, your last experience with it,” coach Paul Maurice said. “There is in some ways an advantage to the team at times that’s down 3-1 in terms of the freedom mentally that it can play with. At the same time, you’re down 3-1 for a reason, so clearly the other team has been good. But we have some experience with this, and we’ll draw on it.”
The Golden Knights also have recent experience to draw from. They led Dallas 3-0 in the West final and got pushed to a Game 6 before finishing off the Stars with their best performance of the season.
Replicating that would mean a Stanley Cup celebration on The Las Vegas Strip — one that everyone around the team is attempting not to dwell on.
“We do have to block some of that out,” Cassidy said. “Stay in the moment and prepare like we have every other game and then once you’re able to get it done, then you’re able to have your fun with the fanbase and everyone else around.”
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
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