Defenseman Jon Merrill took the puck from behind his own net and created just enough space to fire a pinpoint 100-foot pass through traffic. He hit Cody Eakin in stride behind the defense for a goal that sparked the Golden Knights rally for a massive road win at Tampa Bay last week.
It was an All-Star caliber play against the league’s best team from a guy who watched all but one game from the press box as a healthy scratch from Nov. 18 through Dec. 22.
He’s enjoying the games more now that he is seeing regular action on the ice.
Merrill, who signed a two-year contract extension that runs through next season, has been active in six straight games and 16 of the last 19 and has paid dividends for the Knights.
Merrill trailed a short-handed rush by William Karlsson and Reilly Smith during Saturday night’s game against Columbus and fired home a rebound past Sergei Bobrovsky to put the Knights ahead for the first time late in the first period.
It was his second goal of the year and the first short-handed goal by a defenseman in team history.
“Obviously we’re hockey players and we want to play,” Merrill said after the 4-3 loss to the Blue Jackets. “When you get out there and you get opportunities, it makes it a little easier.”
Merrill is expected to be in the lineup again Tuesday when the Knights play the Arizona Coyotes at T-Mobile Arena in a 7 p.m. game.
He’s been invaluable to the team as a main option early in the season when Nate Schmidt was suspended for 20 games and now as they try to get healthy.
The team didn’t practice Sunday so there was no update on defenseman Nick Holden, who is on injured reserve and hasn’t played since Jan. 21. It’s unclear if he will be able to return during this current stretch of eight home games out of the next nine, which started with Saturday’s loss.
Merrill, who has two goals and five assists to go along with a plus-5 rating, just hopes they can find a way to take advantage of this point in the schedule after the Knights dropped their third consecutive home game for the first time this season.
“We’ve got to do a better job to get some wins in here,” he said. “Just believe in our game, believe in ourselves, stick together as a group and come out with a strong effort next game.”
Merrill was paired with Holden early in the season, and again when Colin Miller was injured last month, but has been playing with Miller the last few games. They were able to quickly rebuild the chemistry they found during last postseason when Merrill was active for eight games of the Stanley Cup run.
“We played together a good amount last year in the playoffs, so we know each other pretty well and we have a good time playing together,” Merrill said. “He’s obviously a gifted offensive player, so I’ve just got to make sure I’m in good spots for him out there.”
His teammates have taken note beyond just the goal against the Blue Jackets and the pass that helped the Knights rally from a 2-0 deficit against the Lightning to snap a four-game losing streak two days after his 27th birthday.
Fellow defenseman Nate Schmidt thought the goal was indicative of how Merrill has become more comfortable.
“He’s been playing great,” Schmidt said. “I love his game right now. Confidence is the key to any player, no matter what sport you’re in. I think when you’re seeing plays, and you see an opportunity and you’re confident, you’re going to jump in, penalty kill or not. He makes a great read there because some of their forwards had given up on the play. He had a chance to slip in the slot there and make a great play. You love seeing that. A guy comes in and he’s played awesome for us.”
Merrill is enjoying it too.
“Hockey’s fun,” he said. “(I’m) just having a good time out there.”
Born: Feb. 3, 1992 (27)
College: University of Michigan
Career Games: 284
Career Goals: 9
Career Assists: 37