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Golden Knights goalies exceed expectations early in season

There was 1:20 on the clock when Adin Hill decided to go for it.

The Golden Knights goaltender collected the puck behind his net with his team nursing a 4-2 lead against the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday at T-Mobile Arena. He saw the empty cage at the other end. It looked as if it was worth a try. Until it wasn’t.

Hill started to wind up for the approximately 189-foot shot that could have made him the 10th goalie in NHL history to score a goal before he, in his own words, “chickened out.” His weak shot attempt didn’t even get out of the defensive zone before Jets rookie Cole Perfetti knocked it down.

Still, attempting a play like that in a two-goal game in only his second start with the Knights shows where Hill’s confidence is. And for good reason.

He and goalie partner Logan Thompson have exceeded all expectations through five games. The Knights, who announced in August that starter Robin Lehner would miss the season with a hip injury, have the NHL’s fourth-best team save percentage.

“The more they each compete with one another and keep pushing one another, the better off we’ll be,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “It was the plan in acquiring Adin knowing he was a good goaltender. And we saw parts of it with Logan last year. So we weren’t panicking when we got the news on Robin.”

Thompson, 25, transformed himself from an undrafted Canadian college hockey player to an NHL opening-night starter through sheer determination.

He’s built on his 10-5-3 record from last season with a 2-1 start to this one. He has stopped 91 of the 97 shots he’s faced against Los Angeles, Chicago and Calgary for a .938 save percentage that’s tied for ninth-best in the NHL. His 2.8 goals saved above expectations based on shot data, according to the website MoneyPuck.com, ranks seventh.

Thompson’s athleticism and drive make for a potent combination. He moves around the net well and won’t accept a goal is going in until it hits the net. His save against Calgary right wing Tyler Toffoli on Tuesday — in which he slid across his crease and lunged to grab the puck with his glove — was a perfect example.

“It’s not always going to be pretty, right?” Thompson said. “That’s part of my game that I take pride on is never giving up on pucks. Sometimes you’re going to be controlled and positional, and other times you’re going to have to kind of be sporadic at times.”

Hill, 26, is more structured in general, except when he tries to score.

The August trade acquisition has a .934 save percentage through two starts that ranks 13th in the NHL. Hill prefers to use his 6-foot-4-inch frame to fill up the net and flash his athleticism only when necessary.

He also likes to go behind the net to play the puck, even though it normally doesn’t result in a shot attempt. His passes have started breakouts and gotten the Knights moving.

“I find it fun,” Hill said. “It helps me settle into the game a little more, read the play a little more.”

The Knights couldn’t have asked for a much better start from either goaltender. The only question is whether it can continue.

Both netminders still have limited NHL track records. Thompson has 23 appearances and Hill 76.

The Knights hope to provide them enough support to keep it going. Cassidy’s defensive system worked for numerous goaltenders the past six years in Boston. Tuukka Rask finished second in the Vezina Trophy voting in 2020, the same year the Bruins won the Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed.

Veteran Linus Ullmark posted the second-best goals-against average of his career last season in Boston. Rookie Jeremy Swayman finished fifth in the Calder Trophy race.

One of the goals of Cassidy’s structure is to keep shots to the outside and make saves predictable for goaltenders. That way, the Knights don’t have to ask Thompson and Hill to carry them to victory every night.

“Play well in front of them, and they’ll both do their job, and I believe that’s what’s happened,” Cassidy said. “You don’t have to make a number of high-end saves every night.”

Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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