Friday, May 7, 2021 | 11:20 p.m.
The puck hit the back of the net and the largest Golden Knights crowd of the season went bananas. Capacity expanded to 7,567 fans, the largest crowd for an NHL game this season, and the difference was palpable.
Jonathan Marchessault provided the overtime goal to lift Vegas to a 4-3 win over the St. Louis Blues, a climax to a thrilling contest that could be a precursor to a first-round showdown. As the postseason nears, every game feels more like a playoff contest, and Friday night was the apex of that so far this season.
The victory increased the chances the Golden Knights will meet the Blues in the first round of the playoffs, slated to begin next weekend. Vegas is currently in first place in the West Division and the Blues are in fourth, so if the standings hold, Game 1 will be at T-Mobile Arena.
“We have a good opportunity here to play those teams and send a message and the same goes for them,” defenseman Alec Martinez said. “It’s not just us. It’s everyone trying to establish your game and your dominance to carry it into the postseason.”
Vegas opened the scoring on a Reilly Smith skate deflection, but conceded the next three goals to fall behind 3-1. But the Golden Knights know in this building that it’s never over against the Blues. Twice last year they overcame a multiple-goal deficit to win, and laid plans to make that three out of the last five games with a dramatic score in the second period.
Martinez wound up and fired from the point into traffic, and the puck hit nothing but the back of the net to trim the Blues’ lead to 3-2 with 9.1 seconds left in the second period.
Of course being down one is better than two, but the psychological boost a team gets with a goal late in a period can’t be understated. Martinez’s goal let Vegas go to the third knowing it only needed one, and got it from Nicolas Roy at the 6:52 mark of the third to even the score.
“It makes a world of a difference for us,” Smith said of Martinez’s goal. “Goals in the last minute of periods are huge momentum swings, and it’s nice to be on the positive side of it tonight.”
Once the Golden Knights scored to tie it, the Blues went into attack mode. Their response was that of a team still looking for a playoff berth and, until they finished with one point for the overtime loss, they still were. St. Louis had six shot attempts in the two minutes after Roy’s goal, and as the clock ticked down to overtime it sure felt like if there was going to be a regulation goal it was going to belong to the visitors.
Pete DeBoer conceded as much. The Vegas coach said he thought St. Louis’ push after the goal was terrific and said the thought entered his mind that overtime wouldn’t be that bad of a thing. Vegas was undefeated in the extra period this year, and even one point would help hold the Avalanche at bay in the race for the West Division.
“They had a few shifts where it crosses your mind — let’s just get this to overtime,” DeBoer said. “But not much. We tie it up, you want to win in regulation. There was no talk on the bench of it, but it does cross your mind.”
Once overtime came, the Golden Knights showed the logic behind that. Marchessault broke free and netted the goal with 17.7 seconds remaining in the extra period, improving the Golden Knights to 9-0 in games decided there (they are 1-2 when it reaches the shootout), the only team in the league that’s perfect.
“I don’t know what it is — it’s definitely not coaching or practice because we haven’t done either this year,” DeBoer said of the overtime success. “I think the guys, they've got a confidence early. We scored some goals in overtime early, got some saves at the right time and now it’s almost an expectation when they hop over the boards that we’re going to get a win.”
It sent the crowd home happy, and what a crowd it was. Fewer seats were portioned off as virus-related distancing rules eased in Nevada earlier this month, and Vegas cleared 40% of T-Mobile Arena’s capacity. The Golden Knights’ hope is to increase that further for the playoffs, and owner Bill Foley has a stated goal of reaching 100% capacity by the later rounds.
“Growing up as a kid, one of the big things you want, to be a professional athlete, is to play in front of fans,” goalie Robin Lehner said. “Having more and more in the building is amazing, and it really helps with the momentum and feeling like a real hockey game again.”
The game started to feel normal again. In-game contests returned to the big screen during TV timeouts and there was even a proposal during a first-period stoppage (she said yes).
And once the game ended, the ever-growing crowd got to resume one of its favorite postgame traditions heading to Toshiba Plaza and whatever a Friday night on the Strip held next, as chants of “Go Knights Go” echoed throughout the arena.