Golden Knights fans were given a gentle reminder that their team is still working some kinks out when left wing Chandler Stephenson skated right into center William Karlsson’s backside during Thursday’s exhibition against Arizona.
It wasn’t quite playoff hockey. But it was close enough that the Knights left Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, feeling encouraged by a 4-1 win in their first game since March 11.
The team skated well, largely kept the puck out of its own zone and took advantage of a few opportunities on special teams. It was a workmanlike effort from a group that will next play three games to determine the top four seeds in the Western Conference.
“I expected maybe a little bit sloppier game, but I thought we really defended well,” coach Pete DeBoer said. “We didn’t give them a lot.”
Here are three takeaways from the win:
1. Third line comes to play
The third line has been a sore spot for the Knights this season, but DeBoer wants to turn it into an X-factor in the playoffs.
The early returns are promising.
Left wing Nick Cousins (goal, two assists), right wing Alex Tuch (goal, assist) and rookie center Nicolas Roy (two assists) had multipoint nights against the Coyotes. The group also scored the Knights’ lone even-strength goal when Tuch beat goaltender Antti Raanta from a sharp angle with 6:13 to play.
“I thought they were great,” DeBoer said. “I thought (Tuch) was all over the ice. I thought Nic Roy and (Cousins) really had good games, too. A bunch of different aspects of it. I think for sure our depth was a difference maker, and it’s got to be going forward.”
Tuch has had a frustrating season with multiple injuries, but he looked fresh Thursday. He used his speed to blow by Coyotes defenseman Jakob Chychrun and create space for himself on his goal. His skating through the neutral zone was also crucial on right wing Reilly Smith’s first-period, power-play goal.
“(Tuch) did a great job tonight being able to bring the puck up with speed and create a lot of different options,” Smith said.
2. Special teams get a workout
The game, at times, resembled a special teams practice.
The Knights received four penalties and the Coyotes six. There were at least three penalties in each period, so there were few extended stretches of five-on-five play.
Overall, DeBoer was happy with how both his units performed. The power play was 1-for-6 but forced Arizona’s goaltenders to make tough saves. The penalty kill was 3-for-4 and had a short-handed goal off a well-executed two-on-one between William Karlsson and Smith.
“I liked a lot of what our penalty killing did,” DeBoer said. “We had some other opportunities to really push for some offense on the penalty kill, so that’s an element, especially when we get Karlsson and Smith back together, that’s going to be real dangerous.”
Improving the penalty kill is one of the top priorities. DeBoer inverted how the team approached its kills, and growing pains resulted. The Knights ranked 29th in the NHL in penalty killing at 70.7 percent after he was hired.
Thursday appeared to be a step in the right direction. The one power-play goal the team allowed came when Coyotes left wing Taylor Hall sent a backhand shot through traffic after a pileup happened in front of the net.
The Knights were in a bind on the play because defenseman Brayden McNabb lost his stick.
“That was just kind of a scramble,” Smith said. “A couple of bad things just kind of snowballed.”
3. Pretty calm night for Fleury
If goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is competing with Robin Lehner to keep his crease, Thursday didn’t give him many opportunities to shine.
That’s just fine with his coach.
Fleury made 22 saves, but his defense gave up only six high-danger scoring chances at five-on-five. The Knights allowed fewer only 10 times in their 71 regular-season games.
“We’re hoping that’s the kind of game our goalies have to play going forward,” DeBoer said. “Where they’re not seeing a ton of rubber, but they have to be sharp when called upon.”
Fleury did have to be dialed in for the third period, when he made half his saves. The Coyotes started pushing, but the 35-year-old stood firm outside of the one goal.
The one aspect of his game he still is working on, which came into play on the goal, is dealing with traffic in front of his net. It’s difficult to work on that in practice, so Fleury was forced to get up to speed quickly against Arizona.
“That’s something that you need to play to feel it,” Fleury said. “The speed of the game always goes quicker than what we see in practice.”
Golden Knights schedule
Monday: Knights vs. Dallas, 3:30 p.m. (ATTSN)
Thursday: Knights vs. St. Louis, TBA (ATTSN)
Aug. 8: Knights vs. Colorado, TBA (ATTSN)