At different points of the season, coach Gerard Gallant asked his team to elevate its level of play for a big game. And each time the Golden Knights responded.
They did it for the emotional home opener in October.
They did it for the final home game of the regular season with a chance to clinch the division title.
And they did it again Friday.
Alex Tuch scored twice and the Knights withstood a third-period rally from San Jose to earn a 5-3 victory over the San Jose Sharks in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals at T-Mobile Arena.
The Knights held serve in the best-of-seven series and lead 3-2 with Game 6 at 4:30 p.m. Sunday at SAP Center in San Jose, California.
“Honestly, I thought our team did really well, especially in the first two periods,” Tuch said. “We kind of slacked off a little bit in the third and gave them too many chances, too many shots on net, but I thought we finished real strong.”
The Sharks scored three goals in a span of 6:09 in the third, leaving the announced record crowd of 18,693 to sweat out the final minutes.
After a scramble in front following Marc-Andre Fleury’s stop on Dylan DeMelo’s drive from the point, Mikkel Boedker dug out the puck and flipped it in with 4:16 remaining to cut the Knights’ lead to 4-3.
Jonathan Marchessault scored an empty-net goal with 1:21 left to clinch the victory.
Kevin Labanc and Tomas Hertl also scored in the third for the Sharks, who trailed 4-0 at one point in the period.
“In the playoffs, you’ve got to play 60 minutes. We only played 50,” Gallant said.
Unlike Game 4 when San Jose was able to limit time and space, the Knights found more room through the neutral zone on Friday.
And after Gallant called out a handful of his forwards for their lack of a forecheck in Game 4, the Knights’ forecheck led directly to James Neal’s goal late in the first period.
“Everyone’s first couple shifts had to be really hard, short, smart,” Tuch said. “Get pucks deep and put as much pressure on the team as possible. We were physical. We were playing well and, honestly, it was a very good game by everyone.”
Tuch put the Knights ahead 2-0 at 4:52 of the second period when he jammed in a rebound on a power play after Sharks goaltender Martin Jones stopped Reilly Smith’s point-blank shot. The Knights went 1-for-3 with the man advantage and have six power-play goals in their three victories.
The rookie added his second goal at 8:36 of the third period, his fourth of the playoffs, redirecting a pass from Cody Eakin on the rush.
Jones, who blanked the Knights on 34 saves in Game 4, was pulled in favor of Aaron Dell with San Jose trailing 4-0.
“I think we’ve been good at regrouping and letting things go and refocusing and having a big game,” Neal said. “You work all year to have home-ice advantage, and we play well at home. Use that for us and I thought coming home, we were focusing this morning and it carried over into tonight. I thought we had a great start to our game and a great second period, too.
“We just can’t lay off the gas. We’ve got to continue to play forward, play an honest game and we’ll learn from it.”
Fleury, who allowed 11 goals in the past three games after giving up three through the Knights’ first five playoff games, finished with 27 saves.
Erik Haula also scored from a steep angle in the second period to give the Knights a 3-0 advantage.
“At home, we always have great support from our fans,” Fleury said. “Last game didn’t go our way. I don’t think it was maybe our best game in the playoffs. But everybody stepped back into it the way we wanted tonight, and I think it showed. We were fast, and things came a little better for us.”
Gallant made three lineup changes after the Knights were shut out in Game 4, inserting Oscar Lindberg and Ryan Carpenter up front and Luca Sbisa on defense.
The Knights responded with a strong start, outshooting San Jose 15-7 in the first period, and finally were rewarded with three seconds remaining in the period.
David Perron, who returned to his customary spot on the second line, spun away from Sharks defenseman Brent Burns at the half-wall and fed Shea Theodore at the point. Theodore’s shot pinballed off the Sharks’ Logan Couture and went right to Neal, who potted his third goal of the playoffs.
“Every game’s a must win, and at times in this series, we kind of got away from that, especially in Game 4,” Tuch said. “We didn’t come out as strong and let simple plays get to us. I thought we came out tonight and we had 20 guys working really hard. We all played hard, and it was a strong game by everyone.”
1. Self help. Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury had some trouble handling the puck in the first period, and it almost cost him midway through when Logan Couture intercepted a pass and set up Mikkel Boedker for a great scoring chance. Fleury bailed himself out with a slick glove save.
2. Carrier hurt. Knights fourth-line winger William Carrier was limited to four minutes of ice time, and coach Gerard Gallant said Carrier is day to day.
3. Head shot. Knights defenseman Shea Theodore was penalized for cross-checking Tomas Hertl up high early in the third period. He could hear from the NHL’s Department of Player Safety.
David Schoen Review-Journal