Vegas Golden Knights fans were treated to a thriller Thursday night at T-Mobile Arena as their hometown team picked up two points in an exciting 5-4 win against the Philadelphia Flyers.
The game was packed to the brim with key goals, saves and plays that made the 60-minute performance one to behold.
But there were two moments that defined the hockey game for the Golden Knights.
The first: Jon Merrill's first goal of the season.
The second: a mid-shift fist bump between William Karlsson and Brayden McNabb during a 6-on-3 penalty kill.
Merrill, 27, has carved out an NHL career on the blueline and has appeared in 127 games as a defenseman for the Golden Knights in two-and-a-half seasons. Thursday, his No. 15 was lined up next to Nicolas Roy and Ryan Reaves on the team's fourth forward line.
He admitted during a first-intermission interview with AT&T SportsNet's Stormy Buonantony that his last shift at forward before Thursday's game was as a member of USA Hockey's National Team Development Program in the USHL more than 10 years ago. The position was unfamiliar to Merrill, but he didn't show it.
Merrill took 12 shifts for 9:11 of total ice time and scored his first goal since Feb. 28, 2019 as he walked the puck around goalie Carter Hart and shoveled it in on the backhand.
Video: PHI@VGK: Merrill cleans up rebound with backhander
"Any time I'm in the lineup, I'll do anything for this team," Merrill said. "Whether it's forward, goalie or defense, I'll do anything for this team."
Max Pacioretty, who increased his team-lead in goals to 18 with a two-tally showing Thursday, said he's thrilled for Merrill but is ready for an earful of chirps.
"We're so happy for him, but he's going to be ripping on us the rest of the year talking about how easy it is to play forward," Pacioretty said. "I'm so happy to see the guy contribute in that situation where he just came to the rink and got to just go out there and have fun."
Defenseman Brayden McNabb had a front-row seat for Merrill's goal as he manned the blueline on the play. When the puck went in and the bench erupted, McNabb bolted to the corner to celebrate with his teammates.
"How about that goal? He looked like a natural, it was pretty cool to see him get one," said McNabb. "It was really fun being out there when he got it."
Though he stood at the other end of the ice on the play, Marc-Andre Fleury said he shared the excitement when he saw Merrill light the lamp.
"I'm really happy for him," Fleury said. "It's not an easy task to just jump in and fill the gap, but he did a really good job."
The Penalty Kill
Leading the game by a goal in the final two minutes, Vegas was in lockdown mode trying to collect its third win in a row. Reilly Smith received a minor for delay of game and Deryk Engelland was whistled for cross-checking, putting the Golden Knights down to three skaters. With the goalie pulled, the Flyers began a 6-on-3 barrage in hopes of an equalizer.
The trio of William Karlsson, Nick Holden and McNabb took the ice with 1:29 left on the clock. Early in the shift, McNabb blocked consecutive shots from Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere; the first with his skate and the second with what Fleury later called a "two-pad stack." As the Flyers regrouped, McNabb stuck his stick in a passing lane and chipped the puck out to center as William Karlsson stepped up to meet the returning Flyers at the blueline.
Karlsson and McNabb intersected with 1:06 to go and Philadelphia skating the puck out of its own zone. They quickly bumped fists as if to say, "so far, so good."
"I don't know if I've ever done that," McNabb said. "Maybe to Flower once or twice. I kind of forgot about that. He was skating in front of me and we kind of just did it."
"I don't know, it just happened," Karlsson said. "We had some time and I just fist bumped him. He made two great plays and I was fired up. It was an in-the-moment kind of thing. He made that block and then had the good stick to get it down into their zone. He was a huge part of that situation."
With :50 on the clock, Fleury stopped a heavy one-timer from Claude Giroux and Karlsson was swapped for Paul Stastny. Smith exited the box with :42 to go and joined the defensive effort in front of Fleury. A long clear from Holden, a Philadelphia regroup and another clear from Smith allowed Stastny to change for Mark Stone. Stone made an interception with :10 go and cleared the zone to ensure the home team would secure the win.
When all was said and done, Karlsson was able to reflect on the chaos that ensued in the final two minutes with a smile.
"It's fun when you come out alive," Karlsson said. "It was a little bit stressful. It's not every day you have to play in a situation like that."
At the end of the day, the Golden Knights had two points to hang their hats on. A two-game win streak became a three-game win streak and Vegas had moments to point to as critical parts of the game that will stand out in an 82-game season. Head Coach Gerard Gallant saw immediately what both plays meant to his team.
"I think that was outstanding, especially the reaction on our bench when he scored," Gallant said. "Nate Schmidt was jumping around like a 4-year-old kid. It was perfect. The guys were so excited. Then at the end of the game we killed that 6-on-3 off. Those are big things in a hockey game to build chemistry within your team. I thought those two plays were excellent."