Golden Knights’ fans rose from their seats as Alex Tuch cut behind the net for a potential wraparound goal near the end of the second period against the Blackhawks Tuesday night at T-Mobile Arena.
Chicago goaltender Jeff Glass extended his right leg just in time to stop the puck and corral a save, prompting Tuch to slam his stick on the ice as he headed to the bench for a line change. The Golden Knights showed similar signs of anger minutes earlier when the post and a last-millisecond block by Blackhawks’ defenseman Duncan Keith foiled their fourth power play chance of the night.
Instead of letting the frustration fester, however, the Golden Knights channeled it. They fired out in the third period to torch the Blackhawks with three goals in less than five minutes en route to a 5-2 victory.
“We thought we were playing a pretty good game,” Vegas defenseman Brad Hunt said of the team’s mood when trailing 2-1 at the second intermission. “So we just wanted to stay with it, keep going and trust the system. We did that, and I’m really proud of the guys.”
Hunt tied the game with only his second goal of the year when he received a pass from David Perron just inside the blue line, and slapped a shot over Glass’ shoulder 1:14 into the third period. Three and a half minutes later, Perron scored a goal of his own after James Neal, who appeared injured in the second period, came up with a steal in the neutral zone.
Split between the two aforementioned scores was Reilly Smith slapping in his 17th goal of the season. The five-minute slaughter saw the Golden Knights display some of their strongest characteristics — respond to adversity, and pounce on wounded opponents.
That’s what they’ve done most of the year to reach the top of the Western Conference standings, but coach Gerard Gallant had found the effort conspicuously missing during a two-game home losing streak. Gallant was particularly perplexed by the team he saw in a 4-1 loss to the Flyers on Sunday.
“We worked hard tonight and I thought we battled hard,” he said. “The other night, we didn’t have quite the same intensity and the same jump.”
Gallant credited goalie Marc-Andre Fleury for putting the Golden Knights in position to reclaim their identity. Fleury improved to 17-6-2 on the year by stopping 29 of the Blackhawks’ 31 shots, including a few big saves in the second period when the Golden Knights couldn’t break through offensively.
One of them came when Fleury turned away a penalty shot awarded after the goalie inadvertently threw a broken stick in the way of the Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp.
“That wasn’t very smart,” Fleury said. “The stick was right in front of my crease, and it was bugging me the whole time. I didn’t want stuff to deflect off it. When I had a chance to get close, I swatted it away.”
Gallant believed in Fleury’s ability to stop the penalty shot, but the veteran goalie stressed his coach out earlier in the period when he collided with Tommy Wingels at the top of the face-off circle to knock away a loose puck. Fleury was fine, a relief with the Golden Knights already dealing with a bigger injury issue.
The All-Star Neal took a Hunt slap shot off the left knee late in the first period and had to be helped off the ice. He wasn’t on the bench for the first five minutes of the second period, but eventually reemerged and played the rest of the game.
“You never want to see one of your players go down like that, and I came in here and gave him a big hug and got back at it,” Hunt said. “It was a real special thing, and it was good to see him come back.”
There was never any real reason for concern with the Golden Knights on Tuesday night. Even if they hadn’t broken out in the third period and suffered a regulation loss to the Blackhawks — a team they’ve now officially swept for the season — the Golden Knights would have only been a point behind the Predators for the Western Conference lead.
But Gallant and the players said it was reassuring that the team kept its composure to pick up a victory in the same vein of many others during its record-setting expansion season.
“It’s one of the things we’ve done all year: We don’t get too high. We don’t get too low,” Hunt said. “We stay in the moment, and it’s all about that for this team.”