EDMONTON, Alberta — After spending nearly a month adjusting to life in the pros, Zach Whitecloud finally played in his first NHL game Thursday.
The 21-year-old defenseman from Bemidji State was in the lineup for the Golden Knights against the Edmonton Oilers and Whitecloud tried not to put any added pressure on himself.
“It’s exciting for myself and my family,” Whitecloud said following Thursday morning’s skate at Rogers Place. “I just want to go out there, play my game and not be out of character. You don’t want to be someone you’re not. I just want to keep things simple, do my best and help the team.”
Whitecloud, a collegiate free agent, signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Knights on March 8. He has been practicing with the team ever since. And with coach Gerard Gallant allowing some of his banged-up players to rest in preparation for next week’s Stanley Cup playoffs, it was the ideal spot to give Whitecloud a chance.
“We want to see the kid play,” Gallant said of Whitecloud, who took Nate Schmidt’s place in the lineup and was paired with Brayden McNabb. “He’s been with us for a while now and he knows what we’re all about so it’s time to get him in there.”
Smith still sidelined
When Reilly Smith skated Thursday morning in a regular white jersey, it appeared he was ready to return to the lineup against the Oilers. But Gallant said Smith would not play and the forward missed his 15th straight game after suffering an upper-body injury March 6.
“He’s not quite ready,” Gallant said. “He’s real close, though.”
Brandon Pirri, who scored twice in Tuesday’s 5-4 shootout win over Vancouver, remained in the lineup, skating on the top line with William Karlsson and Alex Tuch.
Erik Haula was also in the lineup Thursday after sitting out Tuesday.
Karlsson Plus/Minus king
Karlsson, who has 43 goals and is third in the NHL behind Washington’s Alex Ovechkin (46) and Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine (44), leads the NHL in Plus/Minus and has a chance to be the first player in eight years to be plus-50.
Karlsson is plus-49 with two games to go. The last player to be plus-50 was Washington’s Jeff Schultz, who did it in 2009-10.
Plus/Minus is a statistic that evaluates a player when he’s on the ice in a 5-on-5 situation. He gets a plus when he’s on the ice when his team scores and a minus when his team is scored upon.
The Knights have the NHL’s top three players in Plus/Minus. Karlsson is followed by Jonathan Marchessault at plus-37 and Smith at plus-32.