SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) With no time left on the clock in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final, helmets, gloves, sticks and plastic rats littered the ice, the result of a fracas started in the final seconds of an emotional showdown.
For all the punches, pushes and shoves that accumulated in the melee, none of them changed the result: The Vegas Golden Knights are on the verge of winning their first Stanley Cup title.
Vegas held on to beat the Florida Panthers 3-2 on Saturday night, staving off a rally that culminated with one final shot block and a big save at the end to take a 3-1 series lead in the Cup final.
“Obviously, that was a battle till the last second,” Vegas forward Nicolas Roy. “They pushed back there. We knew they would. They’ve been doing it all series. But it’s nice to get that one, for sure.”
The Golden Knights can win the NHL championship on home ice Tuesday night.
“We’ve played really well at home here in the playoffs, so you’ve got to feel pretty good going home with a 3-1 lead,” defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said.
Getting to this point wasn't easy.
Chandler Stephenson scored twice for the Golden Knights, and William Karlsson broke through to end his series-long goal drought to build a 3-0 lead. The Panthers scored twice - Brandon Montour on a pinball goal late in the second period, and Aleksander Barkov's first of the series early in the third - to claw back into it.
But their rally fell short and put Florida, eighth seed in the Eastern Conference and final team to qualify for the playoffs, on the brink of this improbable run coming to an end.
“We've earned the right to play our best hockey,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “Where we’ve been at our strongest is at the most critical time. I think you’ll see that.”
Down 2-1 in the series, Sergei Bobrovsky again almost kept the Panthers afloat, stopping 28 of the 31 shots he faced and giving up goals when teammates left him out to dry. At the other end of the ice, journeyman goaltender Adin Hill made 29 saves for his 10th win since stepping in during the middle of the second round.
“It’s a credit to him for being prepared when he did come in there a few series ago,” Pietrangelo said. "You’ve got to be happy for him.”
The Golden Knights need only win one more game to deliver a championship to Las Vegas in just their sixth year of existence, making good on owner Bill Foley's goal to win the Stanley Cup in that period of time. They reached the final in their inaugural season in 2017-18 before losing to Washington in five games.
Vegas is more talented and has certainly looked more prepared for the spotlight this time around. Stephenson - who beat them five years ago as a member of the Capitals - and Hill were trade acquisitions, as was first-line center Jack Eichel and captain Mark Stone, who had two assists in Game 4.
A couple of original Knights players also helped them take the penultimate step to the peak of hockey's mountaintop. Jonathan Marchessault assisted on Karlsson's goal that made it 3-0, his 24th point that ties for the playoff lead in scoring.
Then the Panthers made it interesting. Montour scored by banking the puck off the right skate of Brayden McNabb and then the right skate of Shea Theodore and past Hill with 3:51 remaining in the second period and set up Barkov with a perfect pass from behind the net 3:50 into the third.
Missing leading scorer Matthew Tkachuk for several shifts, Florida kept buzzing around Hill and got a few more big stops from Bobrovsky to continue the pressure. A 17.4 second 6-on-4 advantage when veteran Vegas defenseman Alex Pietrangelo put the puck over the glass provided a final few chances but did not yield the team's first power-play goal of the series.
It also caused a scrum that resulted in six penalties, including two unsportsmanlike penalties and two misconducts.
“I kind of felt my helmet get ripped off, and they had six guys on the ice, we had four, so get in there a bit and try and help out teammates,” said Hill, who threw some punches as part of the melee. “I don’t know if there’s really a message to be sent. We’re just getting ready for (Game 5) Tuesday.”
That will be a last gasp chance for the Panthers, who will have to have to replicate their opening round comeback from down 3-1 to Boston to keep Vegas from winning it all.
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
AP NHL playoffs: https://apnews.com/hub/stanley-cup and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports
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