With their season on the line, the Vegas Golden Knights will ready themselves to face the host Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night in Game 6 of their Stanley Cup playoffs semifinal series.
The biggest question facing the struggling Golden Knights is whether their problems against the Canadiens have to do with issues between the boards or between their ears.
The Canadiens gained a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series with Tuesday's 4-1 victory and are on the verge of reaching their first Stanley Cup Final since they won the title in 1993.
While the Canadiens have played well and followed their gameplan, the Golden Knights have appeared discombobulated, with a frustration level that is palpable.
"Sometimes things don't go the way you plan, but you play seven games for a reason," Vegas defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said when asked whether his team's problems are as much about the mental game as their physical performance. "You (media) guys can sit there and pick apart all you want, but we're going to go to Montreal and we have a job to do."
The Golden Knights tied the Colorado Avalanche for most points in the league during the regular season at 82, were the top defensive team (2.18 goals allowed per game) and third offensively (3.39 goals scored).
Coming off a series victory over the Avalanche, they appeared to be rolling but have had their struggles in the series. Of their top seven regular-season goal scorers, only Max Pacioretty has tallied in this series, and his goal was a meaningless third-period marker in Tuesday's loss.
Vegas coach Peter DeBoer admitted he is searching for the answers but felt he had one advantage heading into Game 6: a win-or-go-home contest.
"You know, the good news is, we're still alive," DeBoer said. "We've got to go and win a game and get this back to Game 7. We've faced adversity before in the playoffs. We've faced elimination before and responded. I know we're going to be better."
During Stanley Cup playoffs semifinal history, teams that take a 3-2 lead have a .758 winning percentage in Game 6 (47-15). The Canadiens regained the edge by rebounding from a disappointing Game 4 loss in which they blew a late lead and lost in overtime.
"It's the confidence that everyone has," Canadiens forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi said. "There's a mindset that we really have nothing to lose right now. Everything we do is just to win. If everyone trusts everyone like we're doing right now, that will take us a long way."
Also taking the Canadiens on their magical run is their defending, and not just goaltender Carey Price. The Canadiens have not allowed a power-play goal in the past 12 games, the longest postseason streak since the NHL began tracking goals by strength in 1933-34. They are 28-for-28 on the penalty kill in that span.
"We're definitely excited with what we're doing right now, but we don't want to get ahead of ourselves," said assistant coach Luke Richardson, who remains behind the bench while interim coach Dominique Ducharme is sidelined due to a positive COVID-19 test. "We finish off games the right way. We're going to go into the next game, and it's one game to win."
Neither the pressure-packed moment nor the absence of their head coach have altered the Canadiens' focus. If anything, they have shown even more resolve of late.
"That's been our mindset this whole playoffs, continuing to do what we do, regardless of what happens," veteran forward Eric Staal said. "I don't think we change much. We do what we do every single shift. Every moment we have, every opportunity, we have to try and be difference-makers for our team. Each guy does that."
--Field Level Media