Updated January 5, 2019 - 7:11 pm
Edmonton coach Ken Hitchcock said that to be successful in the NHL’s Western Conference, teams must be prepared to play when the score is close in the third period.
He cited the Golden Knights — in town to play the Oilers — as an example of an experienced team that rarely makes a mistake when it has the opportunity to get two points.
Never mind that the Oilers won 2-1 that December night on a third-period goal after a Knights turnover. The month-old anecdote actually is relevant.
The Knights have outscored their past five opponents 8-0 in the third period and owe their five-game win streak to their play late in games.
“That’s the difference between a good team and an average team is being able to be in those situations and either, A, come back in those situations, or, B, lock it down when you can,” defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “That’s the difference of a couple points here and there (in the standings).”
The Knights’ stretch of third-period dominance comes three weeks after their ignominious 5-4 overtime loss Dec. 14 to the New Jersey Devils, who are in town for a Sunday matinee at T-Mobile Arena.
New Jersey scored twice in the third period and went on to hand the Knights their first loss when leading after two periods on Nico Hischier’s OT winner.
That was a rare blip for the Knights, who are 16-0-2 when leading entering the third period, including Friday’s 3-2 victory at Anaheim.
The other loss for the Knights when they’ve led after two periods came Dec. 22 at home against Montreal when the Canadiens scored late in regulation and won in overtime.
“We don’t really look at the score, so if we’re up 1-0 or we’re up 3-0 or it’s tied 1-1, we’ve kind of played the same way throughout the whole game,” center Paul Stastny said. “Sometimes when you have a lead, you go into the third period and you sit back a little bit. … I think (coach Gerard Gallant has) done a good job of kind of staying clear with that message, and I think the guys have done a good job of kind of not changing the style of play no matter what the score says.”
In each of the Knights’ wins during their current streak, they’ve entered the third period tied or ahead by one goal.
They scored twice in the third period for a 2-0 victory against Los Angeles on Tuesday and blew open close games against Arizona (Dec. 30) and Los Angeles (Dec. 29) with big third periods.
Brandon Pirri broke a tie midway through the third period to give the Knights a 2-1 win over Colorado on Dec. 27.
“We’re supposed to be good (in the third period). We’re a good hockey team,” Gallant said. “We play a good, solid game. We don’t play a high-risk game, by no means. I think if we play our game as much as possible, it doesn’t matter if it’s a one-goal lead or two-goal lead, you’ve got to play the same way, and that’s what I preach to them all the time.”
This recent streak is a continuation of the Knights’ season-long trend.
They’ve outscored opponents 47-32 in the third period, and their plus-15 goal differential in the final period ranks fifth in the league behind Calgary (+31), Colorado (+19), Winnipeg (+17) and Nashville (+16).
“You get that experience from playing more games like that,” Stastny said. “The run they had last year in the playoffs you had a lot of tight games. And then you get comfortable playing like that.”
Who: Devils at Golden Knights
When: 1 p.m. Sunday
Where: T-Mobile Arena
TV: AT&T SportsNet (Cox 313/1313, DirecTV 684, CenturyLink 760/1760, U-verse 757/1757, Dish 414/5414)
Radio: KRLV (98.9 FM, 1340 AM); ESPN Deportes (1460 AM)
Line: Golden Knights -240; total 6
1. Chance for payback. The last time the Golden Knights met the Devils they blew two separate three-goal leads and lost 5-4 in overtime. The Knights are riding a five-game win streak and are 13-3-3 at home, which is tops in the Western Conference by points percentage.
2. Quiet line. Lost in the Knights’ winning streak is the struggles of the first line. Jonathan Marchessault has one goal in his past 11 games, William Karlsson has four points (two goals) in his past 10, and Reilly Smith shows 3-1-4 in his past 10 games.
3. Dinged-up Devils. New Jersey is expected to be without reigning NHL MVP Taylor Hall because of a lower-body injury. Keith Kinkaid is projected to start in net after backup Mackenzie Blackwood left Friday’s win over Arizona because of injury and did not practice Saturday.