Golden Knights Pete DeBoer has been in this business long enough to know a letdown spot when he sees one, and Saturday might have been one if this was earlier in the season.
But not now. Not the way the Knights are playing at the moment.
The Knights kept up the pressure through the first two periods and eventually forced the Florida Panthers to crack, leading to a 5-3 victory at T-Mobile Arena.
Reilly Smith scored twice in the third period, and Tomas Nosek finished with a goal and an assist as the Knights won their season-high fifth straight game to sweep the “Valley of Death” homestand.
The first-place Knights (33-22-8, 74 points) finish the back-to-back Sunday at Anaheim, losers of three straight.
“I thought we stuck with it,” DeBoer said. “It was one of those games that could have been frustrating. We gave up the power play goal and we’re down at that point. I thought there were a bunch of different moments where we could’ve got frustrated, especially in the second period because we were putting a lot of pucks on and they weren’t going in. But we stuck with it and showed a lot of resiliency in that way.”
DeBoer was concerned how the Knights would respond following Thursday’s emotional victory over Tampa Bay, and they fell behind 3:28 into the game when Florida’s Mike Hoffman banged in a rebound.
Evgenii Dadonov gave the Panthers a 2-1 advantage less than a minute into the second period, but the Knights responded with three unanswered goals against Florida goalie Sam Montembeault.
William Carrier tied the score with his seventh goal at 12:39 of the second period. Max Pacioretty added his team-leading 29th with 52 seconds remaining for a 3-2 lead, and Smith made it 4-2 at 19 seconds of the third period.
Marc-Andre Fleury made 18 of his 32 saves in the third period and improved to 4-0 while wearing his gold pads.
Shea Theodore picked up an assist for his 41st point, tying the franchise record for points by a defenseman set in 2017-18 by Colin Miller.
“We know we went through a tough stretch at the start of the year and guys weren’t playing the way we wanted to play,” Carrier said. “We figured out we have a good team here. It’s just a group decision that everyone’s got to push night after night and play well shift after shift.”
Here’s what stood out from the win:
Under the radar
Smith continues to elude the spotlight despite having his best season as a pro.
He notched his 24th and 25th goals of the season, matching his career high set in 2015-16 while he was with the Panthers.
“Obviously working hard and everything, but as hockey players and professional athletes, when you’re having fun, you’re playing your best,” Smith said. “It’s nice to be able to play with the linemates I’m playing with. They’re giving me great opportunities, and I’m just trying to put them in the back of the net.”
Smith has goals three of his past four outings and points in four straight. He is on pace for 64 points, which would top his career high of 60 points set during the Knights’ inaugural season.
Smith gave the Knights a 4-2 lead early in the third period when he tried to make a move around Florida defenseman Anton Stralman but lost control. Vincent Trocheck overskated the puck, and Jonathan Marchessault pounced on the loose change, then slipped a pass to Smith for a one-timer from below the right faceoff dot.
Smith added an empty-net goal with 1:17 remaining.
“He’s such a valuable guy,” DeBoer said. “We use him in every situation and he’s so good defensively. He’s scored some timely goals. I’ve only been here a dozen games or so, but he’s scored some big and timely goals for us. That was a huge one tonight. They were pressing and that goal early in the third, I thought, was probably the difference in the game.”
Injury bug bites
The trade that sent Cody Eakin to Winnipeg on Friday created an opening on the third line for Chandler Stephenson to slide to center. He teamed with Carrier and right wing Nicolas Roy, and their speed caused problems for the Panthers.
That line posted a 90.9 percent shot share at 5-on-5 and owned a 4-0 advantage in scoring chances, according to NaturalStatTrick.com. In addition, they generated a 97.1 percent expected goals share.
But Roy was injured with 2:49 remaining in the second period on a hit from behind by Florida’s Noel Acciari and did not return in the third period. DeBoer did not provide an update on Roy’s status after the game.
“I wish he could have finished the game, because they were playing well,” DeBoer said. “The first half of the game I thought our third and fourth lines were our best lines. We got a goal from Carrier and had a goal from (Tomas) Nosek. Those guys, I thought really set the tone for us on a tough night.”
Terrible hit by Noel Acciari on Nicolas Roy. Roy turning into boards doesn't matter here, Acciari is approaching from behind and sees nothing but numbers. Only given a two minute minor, Acciari should've received a five minute major and a game misconduct. Roy has not returned pic.twitter.com/bKuVmwF0Zg
— NHL Player Safety Watch (@NHLSafetyWatch) February 23, 2020
DeBoer showed faith in his penalty killers when he challenged the Panthers’ third goal at 5:11 of the third period.
Aleksi Saarela put a rebound past a down-and-out Fleury, who was knocked off his spot when Dadonov poked at a loose puck. Hoffman was then shoved from behind by Knights defenseman Nick Holden and fell into the crease.
DeBoer believed Dadonov interfered with Fleury, but the call on the ice was upheld and the Knights were assessed a two-minute penalty for delay of game while leading 4-3.
“We have people underneath looking at all the angles, so I think we felt Dadonov was pushing (Fleury) out of position with his stick, which stopped him from making the next save. We were wrong,” DeBoer said. “It was a challenge that I give our penalty-killing group full marks. I knew as soon as it took as long as it did that we were probably in trouble, so we started talking about the penalty kill and the guys got the job done.