LAS VEGAS – A stickless Chandler Stephenson was credited with the game-winning goal, Robin Lehner made 30 saves and the Vegas Golden Knights beat the Arizona Coyotes 4-2 on Monday night.
Not too long after the first of Reilly Smith’s two goals tied it early in the third period, Vegas defenceman Zach Whitecloud gathered a loose puck from a faceoff in Arizona’s zone and fired a shot off Stephenson’s back to give Vegas its first lead of the game.
“My back was to the play, I was trying to get my stick back … just right place, right time,” Stephenson said. “One of those lucky ones you’re thankful to get.”
Max Pacioretty also scored for the Golden Knights, his third goal in three games.
Vegas has won two straight after trailing to start the third period. The Golden Knights own a 7-0 goal-differential in the final period and improved to 3-0-0 overall.
Tyler Pitlick and Nick Schmaltz scored Arizona. Goaltender Darcy Kuemper stopped 24 shots.
“They made a push,” Pitlick said. “I thought we were still playing pretty well, but they made a good push there and they got two goals. That one was a little bit lucky I thought, it is what it is. We played a pretty good game overall.”
Arizona looked like the better team from the outset, controlling the pace with more intensity than the Golden Knights, who struggled with sloppiness throughout the first period.
Pitlick took advantage of Vegas’ miscues when he intercepted Mark Stone’s pass in Arizona’s zone, skated the length of the ice and beat Lehner with a wrist shot that went off the crossbar and in to put the Coyotes on the board with a short-handed goal. It was Pitlick’s first goal and point as a member of the Coyotes after spending last season with Philadelphia.
Still on the power play, the Golden Knights got an additional boost with a 5-on-3 edge but couldn’t solve Kuemper, who stopped four shots on the entire power play. Kuemper, who began the campaign as the only NHL netminder to have a .920 save percentage or greater in each of the last three seasons, stopped all eight of Vegas’ shots he faced in the first period.
Vegas had two of its better chances in the second period, both during a penalty kill. William Karlsson hit the left corner of the post on a breakaway, and Tomas Nosek failed to find the five-hole during a 2-on-0 break, as Kuemper came up big again.
Schmaltz rewarded his netminder by giving him a 2-0 lead when his shot from the right circle appeared to carom off Vegas defenceman Alec Martinez and past Lehner. Derick Brassard assist on the goal was 300th of his career.
Pacioretty got Vegas on the board with a nifty shot from behind the goal line, where he chipped his own rebound off the back of Kuemper’s shoulder with Vegas’ first shot on goal after an 11:28 drought to cut Arizona’s lead in half.
Smith, who scored a career-high 27 goals last season, backhanded his first of the season after linemate William Karlsson dished a beautiful no-look backward pass between his legs from behind the net four minutes into the third period.
Smith’s empty-net goal with 12 seconds left iced the game.
“We have a veteran team that has confidence in their ability to win games,” Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said. “This is a hard league to win in and you’re not going to be at your best every night, and I thought that was the case tonight. We dug in in the third and I thought we played the way we’re capable of playing and found a way to win.”
The Coyotes played without injured captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who was placed on injured reserve Sunday. The veteran defenceman suffered a lower body injury when San Jose Sharks wing Evander Kane shouldered him into the end boards, and he appeared to land awkwardly. Ekman-Larsson will miss three to four weeks.
Veteran forward Phil Kessel, who last missed a game on Halloween night in 2009, played in his 847th consecutive game, the third longest active streak, behind Florida’s Keith Yandle (866) and San Jose’s Patrick Marleau (857). Kessel’s run is the sixth longest in NHL history.
Vegas’ futility with a man advantage continued Monday. After failing to capitalize with one in each of their first two games, DeBoer said he wanted to see the Golden Knights draw more penalties. They did but went 0-for-5 with the extra skater against Kuemper.
The Coyotes and Golden Knights meet again Wednesday at T-Mobile Arena as part of a four-game, home-and-home series, with the final two taking place Friday and Sunday in Glendale, Ariz.