As the puck bounced off Detroit goaltender Jimmy Howard and trickled through the crease, there was a brief moment when Cody Eakin realized what was about to happen.
The Golden Knights center paused for a half-beat to savor the pending milestone and then emphatically swatted his 20th goal into the open net.
“It was a bit of a relief,” Eakin recalled. “There was no one within a few feet, so I dusted it off and made sure I put it in.
“A little extra sweep.”
Eakin is one of five players — six if you count trade deadline addition Mark Stone — to reach the 20-goal plateau this season for the Knights.
Even in this era of increased offense, it’s a mark that still carries significance, especially for a couple of first-timers like Eakin and winger Alex Tuch.
“I haven’t been around the league long enough, but from what I’ve heard and everything like that, 20 is a good mark,” Tuch said with a wry smile. “If I do it consistently, then it’ll be an even better feeling. But if I’m one-and-done, I don’t think that’s too good.”
Eakin has been chasing the mark since he pumped in 19 goals over 78 games for the Dallas Stars during the 2014-15 season.
He produced 19 goals over the next two seasons combined and finished his first season with the Knights at 11.
Since then, Eakin added two more goals to reach 22 and also match his career high with 40 points.
“I had to get some opportunities and some good luck along the way to get it,” Eakin said. “I’ll remember it for a while. For (fellow Winnipeg native Ryan Reaves) to be the guy who tipped it is pretty awesome, so I had to give him a big hug for that.”
Tuch notched his 20th goal in the third period of a 4-3 loss at Colorado on March 27 when he knocked a rebound out of the air.
After finishing with 15 goals in 78 games as a rookie, Tuch reached an A-level performance bonus worth $212,500 thanks to his 20th goal.
He can earn up to $425,000 total in performance bonuses on his entry-level contract, according to CapFriendly.com, and is within reach of a handful of other bonus categories with two games remaining.
“I was just really pumped about the goal because I tried to help the team win and get one goal closer, close the gap a little bit with about five minutes left,” Tuch said. “I thought we were one step closer to winning the game. That’s probably the best feeling about it.”
Washington has a league-high seven 20-goal scorers, while Toronto has six players who reached the mark and another (Kasperi Kapanen) sitting on 19 goals.
Right wing Reilly Smith has 19 goals and would give the Knights seven 20-goal scorers, including Stone.
When they reached the Stanley Cup Final last season, the Knights had five players with 20 or more goals. That depth will be key when the postseason begins next week against San Jose.
“It’s pretty good when you’ve got that depth and scoring on your team and you can throw out anybody there and feel comfortable about them scoring goals,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “That’s what makes a coach feel good. I don’t really care about the numbers, but 20 is a pretty good number nowadays.
“I like 30 better. But 20 is still good.”
Golden Knights leading goal scorers
*Mark Stone 32 (28 with Ottawa)
*Jonathan Marchessault 25
*William Karlsson 24
*Cody Eakin 22
*Max Pacioretty 22
*Alex Tuch 20
*Reilly Smith 19
Note: Washington has a league-high seven 20-goal scorers. Toronto has six plus one sitting on 19 goals.