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Golden Knights searching for killer instinct against Stars

Updated May 28, 2023 - 2:28 pm

DALLAS — The Golden Knights aren’t hiding from their situation.

They’re a submarine sinking deeper into the ocean after two straight losses to the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference Final. Pressure is all around.

It’s up to the Knights to find a way back to the surface before they burst. They’re still one win from reaching the second Stanley Cup Final in franchise history because of their 3-2 series lead. But victory is starting to look less and less assured given the Stars have rallied from 3-0 down to force a Game 6 on Monday at American Airlines Center.

Left wing Reilly Smith said the Knights have to treat the next one as a “must win.” They don’t want to return for a Game 7 at T-Mobile Arena and risk being only the fifth team in NHL history — and the first in the round before the final — to be eliminated after going up 3-0.

“We have to understand we can’t keep playing the way we have the last two games and expect them to go away,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “They’re even hungrier now, probably, and feeling more confident.”

Cassidy’s message for the Knights on Sunday was “get harder.”

That means winning more battles along the boards and in front of the net. It means taking care of the puck in different areas of the ice. Both things have been an issue for the Knights in the past two games. It has resulted in their first two-game losing streak of the postseason and only their third overall since the All-Star break ended Feb. 7.

The Knights had far too many turnovers in their 4-2 Game 5 loss Saturday at T-Mobile Arena. They were credited with 24 giveaways, a franchise record for a home game and tied for their second-most ever. Eleven came in the defensive zone, as Dallas’ forecheck kept hounding defensemen below the goal line and forwards along the walls.

The Stars’ relentless waves of attack helped them become the third team in NHL history to get consecutive comeback wins when facing elimination in the conference finals/semifinals.

“We’re not breaking out well at all,” captain Mark Stone said. “It’s just execution. Winning battles and getting pucks going the other way.”

Dallas’ forecheck has sparked an offense that wasn’t creating much to start the series. The Stars also have started to get chances off the rush again, a hallmark of their game the Knights did well to limit early.

Dallas has had 15 high-danger scoring chances at five-on-five in the past two games, according to the website Natural Stat Trick. That’s tied for the most the Knights have allowed in the playoffs. It’s also tied for the third-most they’ve allowed in any game this season.

The Stars had only 19 high-danger scoring chances at five-on-five in the first three games combined.

“We’re giving them Grade A chances that I don’t think we were giving (up) the first two rounds,” Smith said. “We have to go in there with a mindset that we’re going to limit them to very little and make the most of our opportunities.”

Any aspect the Knights can tighten up will help because the margins have been razor thin in the series.

Three games went into overtime. Games 4 and 5 were tied 2-2 after two periods. The Knights have had three opportunities to win a period to close things out. They haven’t done so.

Instead, they’re still playing while the Florida Panthers await the survivor of the series in the Stanley Cup Final. The Knights have two chances to win one game. That doesn’t mean the pressure hasn’t started to increase around them, especially with the Stars set to get back captain Jamie Benn from his two-game suspension Monday.

“Obviously, when you have teams down, you really have to have a bit of a killer instinct and make sure we’re making things difficult on them,” Smith said. “The last two games we haven’t done that. We’ve given them free chances. It’ll be an important next game to get back to the style of play that’s made us so successful in these playoffs.”

Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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