A raucous T-Mobile Arena crowd celebrated fan appreciation night with goodies like doughnuts for a year and a new car given away during Thursday’s final regular-season home game.
Their favorite gift of all may have been the return of star goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury less than a week before the playoffs begin after he had missed the previous nine games with a vague lower-body injury.
A save on a breakaway early in the game had the crowd once again chanting his name, but Arizona eventually crashed the party with a 4-1 win.
“There were a few times I made saves I was happy with and I had a little smile,” Fleury said of his return. “But some other times I was messing up. It’s just fun to get back into it and see game situations and just get used to the speed of the game and battling through traffic and finding guys around you.
“Sometimes you focus so much on the puck, you forget to look around where people are at.”
The result was far less important than the process for the Knights (43-31-7), who are locked into the No. 3 spot in the Pacific Division and a first-round matchup against San Jose.
Fleury said he felt fine physically after 60 minutes of game action and indicated he would prefer to be in the lineup again for another tune-up when the Knights wrap up the regular season in Los Angeles against the Kings on Saturday.
“We’ll have plenty of time after that game to relax and recover and get going again (before the playoffs start),” he said after making 37 saves. “I thought tonight was good. They got some shots and we had some defensive- zone time to battle through. I always think you can get better at the little things I wasn’t happy with. It’s good we have that L.A. game to do that.”
Fleury looked sharp at times against a Coyotes team that started the night in playoff contention only to be eliminated when Colorado forced overtime against Winnipeg with a late goal and eventually won.
“Give Arizona credit,” Knights coach Gerard Gallant said. “They competed. They battled hard. They came in here and wanted to win the hockey game tonight, and they did. But they just fell a little short.”
It didn’t take the Coyotes (39-34-8) long to test Fleury.
Derek Stepan got his stick on a centering pass right in front of the net that Fleury turned away just 53 seconds into the game. Brad Richardson was then denied on a breakaway with 12:35 remaining in the opening period.
Mark Stone put the Knights on the board with a backhander that got past Darcy Kuemper at 16:26 of the first after Paul Stastny forced a turnover deep in Arizona’s zone.
The Coyotes answered on a Richard Panik goal less than a minute later and Stepan scored twice in the second period.
Conor Garland added an unassisted tally in the third after intercepting a pass and quickly firing it past Fleury, who had been in one of the best grooves of his career when the team announced he would miss time with an injury just a day after he earned his sixth straight win with a 2-1 victory in Dallas on March 15.
The 34-year-old had allowed just five total goals during that stretch, which included the longest shutout streak of his career.
He wasn’t at the top of his game on Thursday, though his teammates put him in some difficult positions with some sloppy turnovers in the defensive zone.
“Fleury played really well, battled hard,” forward Cody Eakin said. “We didn’t clean up enough in front of the net. We kind of lost some coverage on a few of the goals, but he made some great stops for us. Otherwise it would have been more lopsided than it was.”
The Knights are down to just one more game before the results start to count again.
“I hope we see a lot better than we saw tonight,” Gallant said. “I thought it was a competitive first period, and then after that, it just looked like we didn’t want to play.
“I’m disappointed with the way we played, but we’ll get through it.”
At least they have their starting goaltender back.
1. Defend the fortress. The Knights wrapped up their home slate with a 24-12-5 record despite falling in the finale. It was another successful season at T-Mobile Arena, though it fell short of the phenomenal success they had in their inaugural campaign when they went 29-10-2.
2. Pulling punches. Vegas coach Gerard Gallant continues to shuffle his lineup late in the season as the Knights try to find a balance between rest and staying sharp with the first-round series locked in for next week against the Sharks. William Carrier and Ryan Reaves, two of the more physical players in the league, took their turn watching the game from the press box Thursday. Tomas Nosek and Ryan Carpenter played on the fourth line in their place with regular center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare.
3. Throwback Thursday. William Kalrsson scored one of the most memorable goals in Knights history last year to clinch the Pacific Divsion in a win over San Jose at T-Mobile Arena when he pulled the puck back between his legs on a breakaway and reached behind him to score a goal. He tried an indentical move on a breakaway about five minutes into the first period Thursday night only to whiff on the shot.