While defenseman Zach Whitecloud was busy scoring the tying goal for the Golden Knights on Thursday, Alex Tuch was in the opposite corner trading shoves with St. Louis’ Vince Dunn.
A few seconds earlier, Tuch appeared to catch Dunn with a high stick while forechecking and the Blues defenseman retaliated by riding him hard into the boards, then followed up with a series of cross-checks to the shoulder.
But Tuch absorbed the punishment from the 6-foot, 203-pound Dunn and managed to tie up St. Louis’ MacKenzie MacEachern at the same time, allowing Nicolas Roy a free path behind the net to set up the goal.
That was a theme throughout the Knights’ 6-4 round-robin victory at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, as Tuch consistently went to the gritty areas of the ice to create offense.
The 6-4, 220-pound power forward had two goals in the second period, both from just outside the blue paint of the goalie’s crease, to go with his physical play that helped set up Whitecloud’s first career NHL tally.
Tuch was originally credited with an assist on that play, but it was later changed to Nick Cousins.
“I think that whole third line. I thought Nic Roy, too, and (Cousins), those guys, they hop over the boards, they’re not just killing time,” coach Pete DeBoer said. “They’re looking to create offense and score, and they can be dangerous. When (Tuch) is playing like that, he’s a hard guy to handle.”
Tuch had an injury-filled regular season and appeared in 42 of the Knights’ 71 games. But DeBoer called him an X-factor before the playoffs and noted his combination of size and speed can be a mismatch against opposing third lines.
After he scored on a seeing-eye shot from a steep angle in the exhibition game against Arizona on July 30, Tuch’s goals against defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis measured a combined 14 feet from the net.
On the first, Tuch was allowed to drive to the net when Blues forward Tyler Bozak lost coverage. He banged home the rebound from close range after Nick Holden’s drive from the point was stopped by Blues goalie Jordan Binnington.
Less than three minutes later on the power play, Tuch broke free from St. Louis defenseman Robert Bortuzzo in the slot and flipped a backhand past Binnington to give the Knights a short-lived 3-2 advantage.
In two postseason games, the third line with Tuch, Cousins and Roy have combined for two goals and five assists.
“That’s an honor to be called that, but I’m not really too worried about being the X-factor,” Tuch said. “I’m just trying to go in and work hard as I can every game and just try to be a difference maker every shift.”
Here are three more takeaways from the win:
1. Activation nation
Half of the Knights’ offense against St. Louis came from defensemen, as Shea Theodore tallied twice on long-range wrist shots to go with Whitecloud’s goal.
That somewhat overshadowed Brayden McNabb’s pass that threaded the needle to Mark Stone for the go-ahead goal with 7:29 to play.
“The play (McNabb) made tonight was a fantastic play to (Stone) at a great time,” DeBoer said.
Five of the six defensemen recorded a point, as Alec Martinez was the only blueliner not to find the scoresheet. And he hit the post on a third-period power play.
DeBoer also praised the Knights forwards for offering puck support and cover to make it possible for the defensemen to jump into the play.
“He’s really harping on having that fourth guy in the rush, utilizing the net-front D on our breakouts and trying to just jump up there,” Theodore said. “He wants us pinching hard, coming down the walls and keeping pucks alive. I think it translates to great offensive zone time. If we can keep that up, we should be pretty good.”
2. Shaky performance
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury never appeared to settle in, starting with David Perron’s goal on the first shot he faced about four minutes in. Fleury finished with a .765 save percentage.
St. Louis scored on four of its first 12 shots, and Fleury is sure to want two, maybe three, of them back.
In addition to Perron’s shot that appeared to catch Fleury off-guard, Colton Parayko left him stranded well out of the net before tucking in a wraparound for St. Louis’ third goal.
Fleury got a piece of Parayko’s high-danger chance on the second goal, and he had no chance on St. Louis’ fourth after the Knights failed to clear the zone and Troy Brouwer was left uncovered on the weak side.
Robin Lehner is expected to start the Knights’ final round-robin game before DeBoer names a starter for Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinals.
“I think they were a little fortunate, (Fleury) was a little misfortune on a couple of them,” DeBoer said. “Part of that is you have to give them credit. That’s why they’re the defending champs.”
3. Freeze frame
The Knights came out on the right side of a video review for the second straight game when Theodore’s first goal was upheld at 6:50 of the second period.
St. Louis challenged that Jonathan Marchessault was offside as Stone entered the zone with the puck on the power play. TV replays showed the play was within inches, and after a long review, the call on the ice of a goal stood.
According to the NHL’s Situation Room, “There was no conclusive evidence to determine whether Vegas’ Jonathan Marchessault was offside prior to Shea Theodore’s goal.”