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Key Golden Knight shakes slump with goal in Game 1 victory

Mark Stone was surprised when he heard Golden Knights public address announcer Bruce Cusick during the second period Saturday at T-Mobile Arena.

Defenseman Shea Theodore had just scored his first goal of the playoffs? That couldn’t be right.

“I didn’t know that because he generates so much offense for us with his legs,” Stone said. “He creates and moves the puck so well for us.”

It was true.

Theodore — one of the Knights’ offensive engines since the beginning — didn’t see a puck go in the net this postseason until Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. There were some shaky shifts from a player the team has come to expect so much of.

The timing of that first goal might end up being perfect because of that. Getting Theodore back to peak form could make the Knights, up 1-0 on the Florida Panthers heading into Monday’s Game 2, that much more dangerous.

“I know he’s been a bit more in his head these last few games, but he’s playing good hockey for us,” right wing Jonathan Marchessault said. “That’s another guy that I’m pretty happy that he gets on the board here.”

The goal showed so much of what’s special about Theodore, who gave the Knights a 2-1 lead en route to a 5-2 victory.

He got the puck from partner Brayden McNabb on the left side of the blue line about halfway through the second period. Panthers right wing Anthony Duclair went out to meet him as part of Florida’s man-to-man defensive structure.

Theodore drifted to his right, then spun over his left shoulder to protect the puck while keeping it in the offensive zone. Duclair, thinking he had Theodore pinned down in the right corner, stretched his stick out for a poke check. Theodore pulled back in a flash, then left his defender in the dust.

He walked right to the middle of the ice and fired a wrist shot that goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky couldn’t stop because of a great screen from left wing Brett Howden. The play was possible only because of Theodore’s special skill set. Defensemen aren’t supposed to be able to move like that, to cut on a dime like a basketball player taking an opponent off the dribble.

But that’s just what Theodore does.

“Shea has the ability to move laterally as good as any defenseman I’ve ever seen,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “We need him for the secondary offense. It’s a big goal.”

Theodore has danced around defenders like that hundreds of times since being part of the 2017 expansion draft haul. But he hadn’t done it much in the first few rounds of the playoffs.

The 27-year-old didn’t always look like himself after missing seven of the final eight regular-season games with an undisclosed injury. Theodore was the only one of the team’s main six defensemen to not have a plus rating at five-on-five in the second round against Edmonton. He also took three penalties in six games in the series, an outlier for someone who was called for eight during the Knights’ third Pacific Division-winning campaign in six years.

It led to a talk with Cassidy and assistant coach John Stevens after Game 1 of the Western Conference Final. Theodore then got the Knights’ Elvis wig and glasses as the player of the game the next night for his primary assist on center Chandler Stephenson’s overtime winner.

The signs of a turnaround started from there. Theodore began probing, searching for opportunities in which his speed and skill could make an impact again. He just needed that last little bit of execution to finish one of those plays. He got it Saturday.

“I feel good, I’m moving my feet and trying to make more plays,” Theodore said. “I feel like it’s a good time to get some confidence. Hopefully, I can keep that rolling.”

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

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