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Preview: Knight Goes Again as Panthers Look to Force Game 7 with Tampa

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

When you need to slay a dragon, you call a knight.

Hoping to force a decisive Game 7 in their heated first-round series of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Panthers will once again turn to rookie goaltender Spencer Knight between the pipes during a do-or-game Game 6 against the cross-state rival Lightning at Amalie Arena on Wednesday.

"It's extremely exciting," Panthers forward Frank Vatrano said. "It's an elimination game, so you know what's at stake. We need to just play our game. We've got to win this game and do the little things right. We've just got to take everything we did last game and bring it into this one."

Looking back at that last game, there's no question that Knight stole the show.

With ice in his veins and a rowdy crowd cheering on his every move, the rookie was outstanding during his NHL playoff debut on Monday at BB&T Center. After the Lightning scored less than a minute into the game on their very first shot, the 20-year-old netminder went on to turn aside the next 36 shots that he faced help the Panthers stave off elimination with a 4-1 victory in Game 5.

Despite being the second-youngest goaltender to win his NHL playoff debut (and the youngest to debut in an elimination game), Knight showed the poise of a seasoned veteran. At his best under pressure, he gobbled up 11 of 12 high-danger shots he faced, and also went a perfect 5-for-5 on saves on the penalty kill, helping shut down Tampa Bay's traditionally lethal power play.

What impressed Panthers coach Joel Quenneville, however, was his patience in net.

"He handles reads very well," Quenneville said of Knight, who was selected by the Panthers with the 13th overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft. "He's one of those kids that's very mature for his age. Put in that stage and that environment, he handled it like he'd been there before and done that before. I commend him. Hey, here he is again [tonight]."

Providing their young goaltender with more goals than he needed, MacKenzie Weegar, Patric Hornqvist, Mason Marchment and Frank Vatrano all found the back of the net for the Panthers during the win, while Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau chipped in two assists each.

Florida's leading scoring during the regular season, Huberdeau has been piling up the points once again in the playoffs. Sitting atop the NHL's postseason scoring leaderboard, the 27-year-old forward has notched 10 points (two goals, eight assists), including four multi-point contests.

Of those points, five have come on the power play, which has been operating at an incredibly high level ever since the Panthers opted to go with five forwards on their top unit. Since making that change during Game 3 of the series, they've gone 5-for-14 (35.7%) with the extra attacker.

When asked about the change, Hornqvist said the new-look unit benefits from unpredictability.

"We're creating a lot of chaos around the net and even on half-wall because we don't really have set plays and set spots," said Hornqvist, who's tallied a team-high two goals on the man advantage in the series. "That's what the power play is all about, to make their killers move."

Hoping to avoid having to travel back to Sunrise for Game 7 on Friday, the Lightning will be looking to defend their home turf for the third time in the series. In Game 3 at Amalie Arena, Ryan Lomberg's overtime goal lifted Florida to a 6-5 win. In Game 4, Tampa Bay won 6-2.

Kept in check by Knight throughout Game 5, Ross Colton was the only Lightning skater to light the lamp, while Andrei Vasilevskiy surrendered three goals on 37 shots. Expected to get the nod once again in Game 6, Vasilevsky owns a 3-2-0 record and .919 save percentage in the series.

Leading the Lightning's offense, Nikita Kucherov has recorded a team-high nine points (three goals, six assists), with six of them coming on the power play. After him, Alex Killorn and Victor Hedman are tied for second with seven points each, while Steven Stamkos ranks third with six.

Evenly matched throughout the series, the Lightning hold a narrow lead over the Panthers in goals (20-17) in all situations. However, at 5-on-5, the two teams are tied with 10 goals each, while the Panthers have owned 54.8% of all shot attempts and 57.94% of scoring chances.

With their season on the line, Hornqvist said the Cats are going to leave it all out on the ice.

"Just believe in yourself," Hornqvist said of the team's mindset. "That's all that matters tonight. We know we have a good team, and we know we're playing against a good team. Our attitude from the first whistle to the last, let's make sure we pick guys up and believe in ourselves."

PANTHERS vs. LIGHTNING IN THE REGULAR SEASON

- ALL-TIME vs. TBL: 71-48-10-17

- ALL-TIME HOME vs. TBL: 42-16-4-10

- 2020-21 vs. TBL: 5-2-1

PANTHERS NOTES

-- Aleksander Barkov has at least one point in each game of the series thus far, posting one goal and six assists. Over 15 career playoff games, he's amassed 14 points (four goals, 10 assists).

-- After leading the Panthers with eight power-play goals during the regular season, Patric Hornqvist has netted a team-high two in the series. A two-time Stanley Cup champion, he's produced 51 points (27 goals, 24 assists) in 95 career postseason contests.

-- The NHL's hits leader during the regular season, Radko Gudas paces all NHL defensemen in the playoffs with 38, including dishing out at least eight hits in three of five games in the series.

-- Jonathan Huberdeau has registered a team-leading 10 points (two goals, eight assists) in the series, which also places him first in NHL postseason scoring. Already making history, his 10 points are the most by a Panthers player in a single playoff series in franchise history.

-- Sam Bennett has earned at least one point in each of the four games he's suited up in during the series, racking up one goal and four assists in that span. Since being acquired from Calgary at the trade deadline, he's managed to crack the scoresheet in 13 of 14 games with Florida.

-- By netting the game-winning goal in Game 5, Mason Marchment became the first Panthers rookie to tally multiple goals in the playoffs.

-- With four points (one goal, three assists) in this series, Owen Tippett stands as the only Panthers rookie to ever record a pair of multi-point performances in the postseason.

PROJECTED LINEUP (SUBJECT TO CHANGE)

Forwards

Carter Verhaeghe - Aleksander Barkov - Mason Marchment

Jonathan Huberdeau - Sam Bennett - Owen Tippett

Frank Vatrano - Alex Wennberg - Patric Hornqvist

Ryan Lomberg - Noel Acciari - Anthony Duclair

Defensemen

MacKenzie Weegar - Anton Stralman

Gustav Forsling - Radko Gudas

Markus Nutivaara - Brandon Montour

Goaltenders

Spencer Knight

Chris Driedger

Scratches: Eetu Luostarinen, Juho Lammikko, Nikita Gusev, Aleksi Heponiemi, Keith Yandle, Grigori Denisenko, Matt Kiersted, Noah Juulsen, Sergei Bobrovsky, Kevin Connauton

Taxi squad: Scott Wilson, Cole Schwindt, Brady Keeper, Sam Montembeault, Philippe Desrosiers

Injured reserve: Aaron Ekblad (lower body)

RECENT TRANSACTIONS

- May 10: D Kevin Connauton was recalled to Florida's active roster.

- May 4: G Philippe Desrosiers was loaned to the Taxi Squad.

- May 3: G Philippe Desrosiers was recalled from the Taxi Squad.

HOW TO WATCH / LISTEN

When: Wednesday, May 26 at 8:00 p.m. ET

Where: Amalie Arena - Tampa, FL

TV: Bally Sports Florida, CNBC

Stream: Bally Sports App

Radio: 560 WQAM (Dade/Broward); 850 WFTL Palm Beach); 100.3 WCTH (Florida Keys); 107.9 FM/1370 AM WZTA (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM Streaming Ch. 932

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