Windsor, Ontario -- It wasn't the most auspicious start to Graham Knott's night. Just a few steps into his pregame skate, the Windsor Spitfires forward stepped on a puck and went down in a sprawl, sliding belly-down through the high slot as if he were blocking a shot.
That was the last wrong step Knott would take all evening, as the Blackhawks' 2015 second-round pick netted two goals and an assist to help lead the Memorial Cup hosts to a 7-1 win over Seattle.
About half an hour later after his spill, Knott glided toward the net at the other end of the ice -- on his feet this time -- before receiving the puck off a slick pass from the half-boards. Opening his body for a forehand shot, he flipped the previously offending object over Seattle's netminder to open the scoring for the Spitfires and send the hometown crowd into an early frenzy.
Windsor piled on, tallying twice more in a 38-second span to tie a tournament record set in 1978. Early in the third, with the Spits on the power play, a shot from the wing took the slightest of deflections off Knott and then a defender, sliding through the goalie to put Windsor up 5-1. Knott later capped off his statement night with a flourish, carrying the puck around the back of the net, shrugging off a defender and finding linemate Jeremy Bracco with a cross-crease pass for the extra point.
Knott, who turned 20 in January, doesn't normally grab headlines like this, not with four first-rounders on Windsor's roster, including his linemates Bracco (Toronto) and Logan Brown (Ottawa). He's played internationally for Team Canada, but never made a World Juniors team. He spent three seasons with the Niagara IceDogs, gradually making his way up the depth chart, but was acquired by Windsor a month into the 2016-17 season, potentially interrupting a crucial year of development.
Knott says he considered the move a boost rather than a disruption.
"Coming to Windsor was great," he said. "It was an easy transition. [Head Coach Rocky Thompson] really helped me with video to smoothly get in the lineup, and it's been good since. I knew a couple of guys in that room, it's a great group, and they brought me in with open arms. "
With 17 points as an IceDog and 35 as a Spitfire, Knott finally crossed the 50-point mark in what he hopes was his final major-junior season, each of them hard-earned.
At the start of the Ontario Hockey League playoffs, Knott started skating with Bracco and Brown on Windsor's top line and picked up four points in a first-round loss to the London Knights. But it was the six-week break, unforeseen but a blessing in disguise, before the start of the Memorial Cup that gave the trio the opportunity to develop the kind of barn-burning chemistry that was on display Sunday night. They were on the ice for four of the seven goals scored by a surging Spitfires club that has evolved from pre-tournament question marks into Cup contenders.
"We put in all the effort over a month and a half, we were grinding, and we wanted to come and play," Knott said. "We wanted to prove people wrong."
Whether Windsor can rise above the competition and win the Memorial Cup is yet to be determined, but Knott himself has certainly proved his worth through the first two games.
In Friday's opener against QMJHL champion Saint John, Knott didn't collect a point in the 3-2 victory but was noticeably on the ice in the final minutes of the game. Thompson sent Knott out to take the final defensive zone draw as the Sea Dogs scrambled for a last-second equalizer, and he got his stick in the right spot as the horn sounded, preventing one last shot.
Knott has always been responsible in his own zone; that much was expected. It's "offensive flair" that he wants to show off now, he says, for the enjoyment of the hometown crowd as well as the scrutinizing eyes of the Blackhawks. Despite signing an entry-level contract with Chicago last fall, he says his future isn't set in stone.
"I'm going to put in the work and see what happens," he said. "I think I'm playing the best hockey that I have all season. I'm feeling good, in good shape."
The smooth finish of his first goal on Sunday and the bold playmaking on his assist certainly count as "offensive flair." And about that second goal: Knott said after the game that he didn't know the deflection had gone off him, but he was happy to take credit.
So maybe the puck was on his side after all.