Golden Knights fall to Lightning 5-3 as Hill struggles

NIkita Kucherov tallied four points for the Lightning en route to a 5-3 victory over a struggling Adin Hill and a Golden Knights team now fighting just to make the playoffs.

LAS VEGAS — The Golden Knights squandered yet another valuable opportunity to strengthen their playoff standing, losing 5-3 to the Lightning thanks to a four-point effort from Nikita Kucherov.

The Knights fell behind the Kings by two points for the third and final automatic playoff berth in the Pacific Division, as the Kings won on Tuesday with an impressive 6-2 drubbing of the Blackhawks. In addition, the Wild beat the Ducks 4-0 in Anaheim to move just three points behind the Knights for the second and final Western Conference wild card spot.

The loss was especially damning for the Knights because they played a better game than they did in each of their previous three wins that came in the last four games.

 “I didn’t leave the game, you know, anxious about how we’re playing. I thought we played a pretty good game from start to finish. We didn’t win,” said Bruce Cassidy. “But we were right there, and I felt when I watch it again, I’ll look at it and say we played well enough to win, but we didn’t.”

Cassidy continued, “That’s the position we’re in at this time of the year. You can’t have too many of those, right? You got to make sure that you’re putting yourself in a position to win every night, and we did do that

“Obviously, the power play didn’t actually shoot well enough, gave them an easy goal. You know, that’s been a struggle for a while. We’re going to keep pounding away on that. That’s an area of our game that we really could have helped ourselves tonight.”

The Golden Knights were without defenseman Alex Pietrangelo for the contest. The alternate captain was announced as a scratch by Bruce Cassidy during Tuesday’s morning skate as he deals with an illness. In turn, Nic Hague made his return to the lineup after being a healthy scratch on Saturday.

The Golden Knights opened the scoring just 1:14 into Tuesday’s contest, and it was a beauty. Jack Eichel and Shea Theodore engaged in some tic-tac-toe passing action on the break and it was Theodore who fired a beauty of a primary assist right into Jonathan Marchessault’s stick. You know Marchy buried it, good for his 38th goal of the season. His price just keeps on rising. 1-0 Knights.

The early advantage was short lived. Exactly seven minutes in, a miscommunication on a power-play set between Eichel and Theodore led to Brandon Hagel and Anthony Cirelli going the other way two on zero. Hagel and Cirelli did a little tic-tac-toe of their own, and Cirelli got the shot at net which cleared Adin Hill’s save attempt with ease to tie the game at one. If you had to refer to any single play in the last few weeks as a microcosm for the Knights season, that would probably be it.

Three and a half minutes later, the Lightning parlayed the Knights early mistakes into a 2-1 lead when Anthony Duclair poked the puck into the net amidst a chaotic scene after an inital Adin Hill deflection on a shot from Nikita Kucherov. Kucherov got credit for the primary assist on the goal, good for second in the league behind only Conor McDavid.

16 minutes and 52 seconds into what was a snoozer of a second period, Brett Howden woke the fans up with his sixth goal of the season to tie the game at two. Howden did most of the work himself on the goal, but Keegan Kolesar did receive credit for an assist on the goal due to the initial pass.

The Knights gave up just three shots to the Lightning throughout the entire second period. According to VGK Communications, this was the lowest amount of shots the team allowed in a single period through 68 games of the 82 game slate.

Almost five minutes into the third period, the Lightning’s finishing extraordinaire Brayden Point snuck a perfectly placed shot past Hill and into the net for the go-ahead goal to make it 3-2. Kucherov got credit for his second assist of the game and 77th of the season on the goal.

With 11:44 remaining, Ben Hutton capped off a chaotic possession for the Knights by scoring the game-tying goal for the off an assist from Keegean Kolesar. Kolesar got the puck to Hutton amid a cluster in front of the net after a Andrei Vasilevskiy denied a wrister from Brett Howden. It was just Howden’s second goal of the season, and it couldn’t have come in a bigger spot for a Knights team looking for crucial points in the playoff race.

Golden Knights defenseman and veteran leader Alec Martinez had high praise for his teammate Hutton’s performance despite the loss

“He’s stepped up and he’s played a lot of big minutes for us. Made a lot of big plays. Obviously been out a while and he stepped in and looked like he never missed a beat. Not just tonight, but last game too, making good plays in his own end. Then obviously, you know, scoring a goal and contributing offensively. You can’t say enough about the guy. I mean, he prepared and he worked hard and he’s making the most of it right now.”

Brayden Point had other plans. Around four minutes after Hutton’s game tying score, Point took a deflection off the back of the boards and blew off an abomination of a save attempt by Adin Hill on his way to scoring an embarrassingly easy go-ahead goal. Kucherov also tallied his third assist of the game on the goal.

It can be overstated just how inexcusable of an attempt this was by Hill. It’s just as inexcusable that Bruce Cassidy keeps trotting one of the NHL’s worst goaltenders out in must win situations because Hill gave Cassidy the fluke performance of a lifetime during last year’s Cup run.

Nikita Kucherov scored an empty net goal with 1:09 remaining that settled the final score at 5-3

Coming up

The Golden Knights have two more critical home games coming up this week, first against the Kraken on Thursday and then against the Blue Jackets on Saturday. Both games are set for a 7:30 p.m. puck drop at T-Mobile Arena.