LAS VEGAS (AP) — Reilly Smith scored two goals, Marc-Andre Fleury made 31 saves and the Vegas Golden Knights defeated the Florida Panthers 5-3 on Saturday night.
The Golden Knights completed a five-game homestand 5-0-0 and catapulted to the top of the Pacific Division, where they lead Vancouver by two points and Edmonton by three. The Canucks and Oilers have two games in hand on Vegas, which faces Edmonton three more times and Vancouver twice.
“Every night there’s someone new stepping up and I think that’s a big key to that homestand and picking up a lot of wins,” said Smith, whose empty-net goal with a little more than a minute remaining was his career-high tying 25th goal, which he originally set during the 2015-16 season, when he played with the Panthers. “Those are things that really give our team a boost. When we’re rolling with all four lines we’re a tough team to beat.”
William Carrier and Max Pacioretty also scored, while Tomas Nosek had a goal and an assist for the Golden Knights, who had 10 players with points.
Vegas improved to 9-3-2 under coach Peter DeBoer, who replaced fired Gerard Gallant on Jan. 15. The Golden Knights’ five-game win streak is their highest of the season.
Vegas’ analytics have improved dramatically under DeBoer, as the Golden Knights rank No. 1 with 36.4 shots per game, have the second-fewest shots allowed per game (27.3), the second-most goals per game average (3.64), the third-most goals scored (51) and have the fifth-most points (20) since his first game as coach on Jan. 16.
The other thing they’ve done well, something they struggled with prior to DeBoer’s arrival, is staying focused and calm when falling behind in games. It’s a small sample size compared to the Golden Knights under Gallant, but their win percentage was just .296 (8-14-5) before the coaching change after allowing the first goal and is .500 (3-2-1) under DeBoer after allowing the first goal.
“It’s (been) building confidence in your group and the only way to do that is to have success,” DeBoer said. “We’ve started well, there’s been some other games we’ve gotten behind. There’s been a real calmness to the group, but they know that we can put some pressure on the other team and we’re not out of games. They have that ability to score and get back in games pretty quickly.”
The Panthers, meanwhile, are four points out of the Eastern Conference wild-card race after dipping to 3-7-0 in their last 10.
“We started fine, but once the game kept going, they got the momentum,” Florida captain Aleksander Barkov said. “They outskated us, they out chanced us, put pucks on the net. You need a full 60-minute effort. They worked really hard. We just need to match their work ethic.”
Mike Hoffman, Evgenii Dadonov and Aleksi Saarela scored for the Panthers. Sam Montembeault, making just his 24th career start, made 34 saves.
Florida took an early 1-0 lead when Hoffman kicked a rebound to his stick and knocked it past Fleury just 3:28 into the game. It was Hoffman’s 24th of the season, second-highest on the team. Nosek tied the game when he gathered a loose puck in the slot and sent a wrist shot under Montembeault’s pads midway through the first.
Dadonov gave the Panthers a 2-1 lead just 42 seconds into the second period with his team-high 25th goal. With a beautiful display of passing, Barkov took Keith Yandle’s pass and fed Dadonov, who chipped it past Fleury for the 200th point of his career.
Carrier got his seventh goal of the season when he lasered a wrist shot from the circle that caromed into the net off of Montembeault’s glove. Later, with 52 seconds left in the second, Shea Theodore stole the puck from Aaron Ekblad and raced in on a 2-on-0 rush with Pacioretty, who fired a shot off the side of Montembeault’s torso, making it three straight goals that went off Florida’s goalie.
Smith matched his jersey number by scoring 19 seconds into the third period, as he buried Jonathan Marchessault’s pass top shelf for his 24th goal of the campaign.
Saarela cut into Vegas’ lead when he punched in a shot over a cluster of players in the crease. Vegas coach Peter DeBoer challenged the goal, thinking Hoffman interfered with Fleury. But after review, it was ruled Hoffman was pushed into Fleury by Vegas defenseman Nick Holden.
Smith iced the game with his career-high tying goal into an empty net.
NOTES: Alec Martinez is one game shy of playing in the 600th of his career. … Las Vegas-native Gage Quinney became the first Nevada-born hockey player to play in an NHL game when he made his debut in the starting lineup. … Theodore’s assist on Pacioretty’s goal was his 41st point, tying the franchise record for points by a defenseman originally set by Colin Miller during the team’s inaugural season in 2017-18.
Florida: Visits Arizona on Tuesday
Vegas: Visits Anaheim on Sunday