PITTSBURGH — While the Golden Knights undressed in the visiting locker room Thursday, The Ramones’ cover of “What a Wonderful World” played over the public-address system at PPG Paints Arena.
The song offered the perfect juxtaposition for how the defending Western Conference champions are feeling right now.
Phil Kessel’s natural hat trick for Pittsburgh canceled out a fast start by the visitors, and the Knights dropped their third straight game, 4-2 in front of an announced crowd of 18,610.
“It’s frustrating when you come in here and play a good team, and I feel like you control the game for pretty much the entire thing and little breaks cost us,” Knights forward Reilly Smith said. “It’s something we’re going to have to keep our effort high and keep playing the way we’re doing but limit those mistakes.”
Tomas Nosek opened the scoring in the first period for the Knights, who conclude their five-game road trip Saturday at Philadelphia. Smith added his 100th career goal in the third.
“I didn’t even notice,” Smith said. “Maybe I should have kept the puck.”
But the Penguins scored three times in a span of 7 minutes, 3 seconds during the middle period, including two breakaway goals by Kessel when he split Knights defensemen Brayden McNabb and Colin Miller both times to get free.
“You can’t let people behind you,” Knights coach Gerard Gallant said. “These guys play a stretch game. They leave the zone early a lot of times. They look for breakaways. You talk about that thing in your meetings, but it happens. Sometimes it happens. It’s happened. It’s part of the game. We can’t let guys like Kessel get breakaways.”
Casey DeSmith came up with 35 saves for Pittsburgh in place of injured starter Matt Murray (concussion) and won the duel of backup goaltenders.
Malcolm Subban finished with 18 stops in his first start of the season.
Midway through the second period, Evgeni Malkin sprung Kessel for a breakaway from the red line, and the three-time all-star went top shelf to put Pittsburgh on top 2-1.
Kessel again got behind the McNabb-Miller pairing with 4:17 remaining in the second and beat Subban to the glove side for the second straight time.
Jake Guentzel added Pittsburgh’s fourth goal less than one minute later. Malkin finished with three assists.
“You don’t want to give up breakaways,” McNabb said. “One of us has got to be back, and we’ve got to communicate and make sure we’re not giving up breakaways. You can’t cheat for offense when you’re playing a team like this. They’re opportunistic, and you saw it tonight.”
The Knights went 34-5-2 when scoring first last season, which was second-best in the league, and preached getting off to a faster start against the Penguins.
Nosek’s backhand goal 6:28 in off a pretty feed from Jonathan Marchessault (two assists) gave the Knights their first lead since opening night against Philadelphia.
“It was definitely good to get that first one,” McNabb said. “It’s definitely good to come out of the gates, and we did a good job. We played pretty good. It’s just mistakes, and they’re capitalizing on it.”
But the advantage was short-lived, as Kessel sent a shot through traffic after an offensive zone faceoff win by Malkin less than two minutes later.
In 305 minutes of game action this season, the Knights have owned the lead for only 6:22.
“One big positive that we can keep on moving forward is that we’re working hard,” Smith said. “I think the one frustrating part is we’re slipping on our assignments a little bit and it’s costing us. Keep our effort level but play with a little more awareness, I think.”
1. Split decision. The Knights went away from the Brayden McNabb-Colin Miller defensive pairing in the third period after they were victimized on two breakaways by Phil Kessel. Miller was matched with Jon Merrill, and McNabb skated with Nick Holden.
2. Can’t finish. Down 4-1 with a minute left in the second period, Ryan Reaves and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare had a 2-on-0. But Penguins goaltender Casey DeSmith made a spectacular save to turn away Bellemare and then stopped William Carrier on the follow-up attempt.
3. Flower’s fans. Marc-Andre Fleury didn’t start against his former team, but that didn’t stop the fans from chanting his name following Pittsburgh’s fourth goal. As the third period started, a chorus of “We want Fleury!” echoed through PPG Paints Arena.
David Schoen Review-Journal