The first sign came when Alex Tuch stopped celebrating.
That’s how Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant knew the 22-year-old right wing was becoming more mature.
“It takes young guys some time for that, and I think Tuckie feels comfortable doing what he’s doing now,” Gallant said. “Last year, he was a young kid, and he got excited or he got happy when he scored a goal. This year, he expects to score goals now. I think there’s just a different attitude for him.”
Tuch took over the team lead in points with his empty-net goal in the final minute of Tuesday’s 2-0 victory over the Los Angeles Kings and has been the Knights’ most consistent performer despite playing with an array of linemates.
Entering Friday’s game at Anaheim, Tuch has 31 points in 35 games, one point ahead of William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault.
His 14 goals are one shy of his total from his rookie season, and he is tied for second in the NHL with six game-winning goals, one behind Gabriel Landeskog of Colorado and Elias Pettersson of Vancouver.
“It’s coming in every day and working hard and making sure you’re a game-changer out there every single game,” Tuch said. “My size, my speed is something I had last year but I didn’t always utilize. That’s what I wanted to utilize as much as possible is trying to be that game-changer out there.”
Tuch missed the first eight games with a lower-body injury. Since returning, he’s been a steady producer on a second line decimated by injuries.
He has skated alongside multiple centers and left wings, and his “All-American” partnership with Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty lasted one game before Pacioretty was injured. He also briefly skated on the top line with Karlsson and Marchessault.
Tuch most recently is joined by Stastny and Brandon Pirri, and they have combined for eight goals and 17 points with a plus-21 rating in the past five games.
The Knights have not allowed a goal with Tuch, Stastny and Pirri on the ice together since Pirri was recalled from the American Hockey League on Dec. 19.
“I think when he’s moving his feet the whole game and he’s hunting for the puck, he can be a dominant player throughout the whole game,” Stastny said. “You’re only as good as your last game or your last shift, and that’s the mentality we’re trying to teach him. … The skill will take care of itself.”
Tuch, listed at 6 feet 4 inches and 222 pounds, had 37 points for the Knights in his first full NHL season after being acquired from Minnesota in an expansion draft trade.
He said he patterns parts of his game after Winnipeg’s Blake Wheeler (6-5, 225), Dallas’ Jamie Benn (6-2, 205) and Philadelphia’s Wayne Simmonds (6-2, 185), each of whom combine speed and scoring touch in a larger frame.
“He’s almost like a mix of a power forward with a lot of speed, kind of like a hybrid because he is so big,” Stastny said of Tuch. “He’s not overly physical, but when he’s on the puck, he’s tough to knock off. Or when he wants the puck, he’ll just bump you off and he can be like that. It’s kind of like that hybrid where you don’t see a lot of guys that are that big that are that coordinated that can move that well.”
Tuch owes his success this season in part to his improved finishing. He had an 8.8 shooting percentage as a rookie but is scoring on 16.3 percent of his shots this season.
The Knights signed Tuch to a seven-year, $33.25 million extension, but he’s on pace to outperform the deal before it kicks in next season.
“You learn a lot of stuff. I think the playoffs taught me a lot of things, too, compared to the regular season last year,” Tuch said. “It’s been good. … It’s just the start of steps I wanted to take this year.”
Alex Tuch file
Born: May 10, 1996
Birthplace: Syracuse, New York
Position: Right wing
Draft: 2014 Minnesota, first round (18th overall)
Golden Knights leading scorers
Player Games played Goals Assists Points
Alex Tuch 35 14 17 31
William Karlsson 43 15 15 30
Jonathan Marchessault 43 13 17 30
Reilly Smith 43 9 18 27
Cody Eakin 40 12 11 23
Max Pacioretty 30 10 9 19
Shea Theodore 43 4 15 19