In early December, Golden Knights forward James Neal mentioned that he couldn’t wait to see what playoff hockey would be like in Las Vegas.
It was loud. It was intense. It was full of heavy hits.
In other words, it was everything you’d expect from the first postseason game in franchise history.
Spurred on by 18,479 towel-waving fans — the largest announced crowd of the season at T-Mobile Arena — the Knights opened on the right foot with a 1-0 victory over the Los Angeles Kings in Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinals.
The Knights will look to go up 2-0 in the best-of-7 series when they host Game 2 at 7 p.m. Friday.
“It’s going to be a tight game throughout playoffs. It’s going to be those one-goal, tied-up hockey,” Knights defenseman Shea Theodore said. “I thought we did a really good job holding that lead tonight.”
Theodore scored the lone goal of the game less than four minutes into the first period, and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury made it stand up with 30 saves for the Knights.
It was the 11th career playoff shutout for Fleury and his 63rd career victory in the postseason, which is tops among all active goaltenders.
Fleury stopped a backhander from Kings center Anze Kopitar midway through the third period and emerged from a pile-up without his helmet or catching glove.
His best save of the third came with 2:45 remaining when he turned aside Dustin Brown’s attempt.
“I felt good. My teammates were great, also,” Fleury said. “They helped me out a lot blocking shots and keeping guys away from the front of the net. It makes my job a little easier.”
Los Angeles, which played without regulars Jake Muzzin and Derek Forbort on defense, did it best to impose its style on the series and finished with a 68-59 advantage in hits.
But the Knights never backed down and, led by the fourth line of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, William Carrier and Tomas Nosek, matched Los Angeles hit for hit.
“Our biggest thing was team speed and usually you don’t want to have a lot of hits because that means you don’t have the puck. But that’s just the way the game was going tonight,” Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “What a catalyst Will Carrier was tonight. It was great having him back and having his energy back. That line really causes a lot of problems.
“I think at the end of the day, that’s the way you’re going to have to play it in the playoffs.”
The Knights, who were second in the league during the regular season with a 34-5-2 record when scoring first, quickly shook off any postseason jitters and matched the Kings’ physicality in the opening 20 minutes.
Carrier helped set up the Knights’ opening goal when he blasted Kings defenseman Christian Folin along the wall, one of six first-period hits by Carrier, to force a poor clearing attempt.
The Knights were able to hold the zone, and Tomas Nosek found Theodore, whose wrist shot was redirected in front of Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick at 3:23 of the first. Quick finished with 27 saves.
Fleury kept the Knights in front in the second period and also caught a break in the opening six minutes when Brown fluttered a shot over the net from close range after Drew Doughty’s blast took a hard bounce off the wall behind the Knights’ net.
Tomas Tatar had two chances for the Knights in the latter half of the period, but he was turned aside by Quick on a power play with 7:30 left and fired wide on an odd-man rush late in the second.
“I was impressed with our forwards, I really was,” Schmidt said. “They can take over a game, and I think they did it tonight.”
1. Perron scratched. Forward David Perron, the Golden Knights’ third-leading scorer during the regular season, did not dress for Game 1. Perron missed the final six games and coach Gerard Gallant said he was day to day.
2. Here comes the boom. Gallant opted for speed on the fourth line and went with William Carrier on the fourth line over Ryan Reaves as the 12th forward. Carrier was a physical force with 10 hits and pounded Los Angeles’ defensemen at every opportunity before he was knocked out of the game by a hit from Drew Doughty.
3. Stick work. Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury put a charge into the crowd with 13:41 remaining in the second period. Fleury made a chest save on Adrian Kempe’s drive and couldn’t control the rebound, but he juggled the puck twice on his stick before snagging it with his glove for a whistle.
David Schoen Review-Journal