BY SCOTT MORGANROTH
The Florida Panthers did a couple things they haven’t accomplished much all series vs The Tampa Bay Lightning.
First, for only the second time in five games, they didn’t have to resort to making a goaltending change. There is no doubt that Chris Driedger and Sergei Bobrovsky have struggled all-series.
They gave up a combined 19 goals in the first four games.
Second, the Panthers held Tampa Bay to just one goal.
After the Panthers 6-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday afternoon that saw them fall behind 3-1 in their Central Division NHL Playoff Series, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out there could be a drastic change in goal.
All weekend long, Coach Joel Quenneville was dropping hints of going with rookie Spencer Knight considering the urgency of a win or go home situation.
After the Monday morning skate, Brandon Montour and Frank Vatrano were eager to play in front of the 20-year old goaltender.
There was the enthusiasm in playing in front of a loud, energetic crowd where the team would be allowed 75% capacity.
Yes, the cliche one game at a time was commonly used by all involved during the past few media availability’s with the series being far from over.
Would Knight live up to the hype Monday Night?
It took the Lightning all of 53 seconds to get on the board scoring on the first shot Knight saw.
Blake Coleman got past Florida’s Keith Yandle and a sprawling Jonathan Huberdeau along the right-wing boards, then waited for Knight to slide in his direction and then, tapped the puck back into the slot. Colton had nothing but net to shoot at and just like that, Tampa Bay led 1-0.
During this period, the Panthers were doing something that Coach Joel Quenneville didn’t want his team to do and that’s chasing. But they got away with it trailing by just a goal at the intermission.
After that goal, the Lightning never saw the scoreboard again as Knight stopped 36 shots to lead the Panthers to a 4-1 win.
The triumph enabled Florida to close the series gap to 3-2 and force a sixth game Wednesday Night at 8 PM in Tampa.
Prior to Monday Night’s game, the team that scored first won all the games.
Knight is the youngest goaltender to ever start and win an elimination game.
Prior to that, the youngest was Tom Barrasso in 1985, who played for the Buffalo Sabres.
Here are some other amazing facts about Knight.
1. He is the sixth-youngest goalie at the time of his first career start in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He is the fifth-youngest goalie to win a playoff game, and the second-youngest goaltender to record a win in their playoff debut (Don Beaupre, 19 years, 202 days).
2. Knight is the first goalie to play in the IIHF U20 World Junior Championship, NCAA Tournament and the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the same season. He is undefeated in his five NHL starts.
3. Knight is the youngest goalie to record at least 36 saves in their playoff debut. His 36 saves are the fourth-most by a goalie making their playoff debut before their 21st birthday.
4. He is the youngest Panthers goaltender (20 years, 35 days) to start a playoff game in club history, the youngest goalie in NHL History to win a game in his post-season debut while facing elimination.
5. Knight is believed to be the seventh-youngest goaltender to appear in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Harry Lumley was 18 in his first post-season game and Barrasso, Bill Ranford, Grant Fuhr, Beaupre and Martin Brodeur all made their debuts at 19-years old.
Of this group, Lumley, Barrasso, Ranford, Fuhr, and Brodeur went on to win Stanley Cup Championships while Beaupre reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
Talk about high expectations for young goaltenders that went on to have outstanding careers, these goaltenders had them.
After Colton scored his goal, the Panthers out scored Tampa Bay 2-0 in the second and third periods. Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 34 shots in the loss.
In the second period, MacKenzie Weegar and Mason Marchment scored. Weegar had an assist on Marchment’s goal.
In the third, Patric Hornqvist and Frank Vatrano lit the lamp. Vatrano had an empty net goal with an assist from Hornqvist.
Aleksander Barkov had a two point night while Sam Bennett had one.
When you talk about pouncing on a young goaltender, the Lightning did just that against Knight in the first period as Tampa Bay’s 22 shots represented the most in a frame by the Panthers in either the regular season or postseason this year.
Coach Quenneville’s logic for starting Knight was simple.
“I think his whole career coming up to joining us this year gave you every indication that he’s capable of doing it. Now it’s an opportunity. When he did play for us off the bat, his composure gave you an indication that he’s capable of handling any kind of situation.
“We have nothing to lose and we’re going to have fun with it. We all know what’s going on, we had to do it. Spencer has a fun confidence, is composed in a lot of ways, has a balanced approach to the game. Nothing bothers him, he welcomes challenges and handles them. Spencer put on a clinic and the goalie won the game. I don’t have to say anymore.”
Weegar scored his first career playoff goal and added an assist (1-1-2). He is the third Panthers defenseman to record multiple points in a game this series joining Gustav Forsling and Radko Gudas. He appreciated the guy that he helped defend.
“Spencer Knight was a rock back there. We were excited to play in front of him. He’s got that calm demeanor to him. I think he just went out there and had fun, and enjoyed the crowd. He brought momentum to our team and hopefully we can keep this going with him there.”
Barkov said home ice advantage on Monday Night fueled the team, and wasted no time praising the paying customers.
“The crowd felt like at least 24,000. It was awesome, our fans are the best. It was so much fun to play. We’re excited and we want to keep this thing going. We want to play in front of them all the time. So let’s keep doing this.”
But the man in net is what made the difference and Barkov gave credit where it was due.
“Spencer Knight was huge. We were excited for him to get in our net. We trust him. He’s confident and calm in the net. He has a lot of fun there. We enjoy that. We enjoy playing in front of him. He was really great today. He won the game for us.”
There is no doubt that Knight wasn’t phased by anything.
CNBC’s Kenny Albert and Brian Boucher were singing his praises all night on national television.
They continued pointing to the struggles of Bobrovsky and Driedger and there was no second guessing the idea of Florida using its third goaltender in the series.
Knight said he found out on Sunday that he would get the nod to start this elimination game.
There were a lot of things that he said which impressed the heck out of me.
After giving up the first goal, he said, “Once one went in you just kind of reset and go, Well this is how it’s going to go. You can’t do anything to change it. Let’s play now. That’s how it was.”
How did Knight approach this game?
“I approached it like I did every other game, like I did my first game and second game here. I was a little bit nervous but I just remembered that I was playing hockey, just try to control what I can and have fun.”
Was he concerned about the team being down 1-0 and the Lightning doing everything in their power to end the series on the road.?
“I’m not thinking much about the score, what I’ve given up, that’s coming at me. I just kind of react and remember that I am playing hockey, regardless of whether it’s practice, regular season games, or playoff games. To me, it’s all just hockey and I approach it the same, and have fun. Don’t think about the result, detach from it, and have fun in the moment.”
Of all the things Knight said, this is what impressed me the most!
“Honestly, when the game was over, it was pretty cool. To me, I have the same satisfaction of winning a playoff game as a regular season game. It’s not about what moment you’re in. It’s about the accomplishment you had as a team.”
To think that this is a 20-year old talking.
We can all learn from this!
On Monday Night on the big stage, the fans at the BB&T Center had a chance to see first hand how their goaltender of the future would perform in a do or die situation.
The Panthers emerged victorious to live to see another night.
If you thought the Lightning came out swarming on Monday Night, Knight will have to be at his best but this time on enemy territory as he hopes to lead the Panthers to a seventh game on Friday Night back in Sunrise, FL.
With the win, the Panthers improved to 4-6 all-time when facing elimination, including the one win it got to stave it off temporarily in last season’s play in round against the New York Islanders.
Tampa Bay is now 18-12 when it has a chance to close out a series.
When you think of the goaltenders that I mentioned earlier in this story, Knight is off to an unbelievable start.
But on Monday Night, the Panthers fans will view the game as “A Knight To Remember.”
Scott Morganroth can be reached at email@example.com and you can follow him on Twitter @TribuneSouth.
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