Knight shuts door on Lightning in playoff debut for Panthers in Game 5

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Spencer Knight had to reset before he was really even set in his Stanley Cup Playoff debut.

There was the Florida Panthers rookie goalie, 20 years and 35 days old, the youngest in NHL postseason history to make his debut in an elimination game, shaking off a goal against on the first shot he faced 53 seconds into the first period of Game 5 of the Stanley Cup First Round against the Tampa Bay Lightning at BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida, on Monday.

“Once you let one in you kind of just reset and you’re like, ‘Alright, this is how it’s going to go, can’t do anything to change it so let’s just go play now,'” Knight said. “That’s how it was. It was a good goal by them, great play, but I just tried to recover. Just smile and have fun.”

 

[RELATED: Complete Lightning vs. Panthers series coverage]

 

Knight did recover, with 36 consecutive saves after allowing the early goal and earned a 4-1 win to keep the Panthers season and their hopes of a comeback in this first-of-its-kind, All-Florida playoff matchup alive.

The Panthers trail the best-of-7 series 3-2, but Florida’s goalie of the future showed he’s all of a sudden the goalie of the present, too. Knight will be in net for Game 6 at Amalie Arena on Wednesday and his attitude likely won’t change.

“For me, I’m not really thinking much about the score, what I’ve given up, what’s coming at me,” Knight said. “I just react. I just remember I’m playing hockey. I do it every day regardless if it’s practice or games. Whatever it is, playoff games or regular season, to me it’s all just hockey and I just want to approach it the same, just have fun. Don’t think about the result, just detach from it and just have fun in the moment.”

Video: TBL@FLA, Gm5: Knight makes 36 saves in Game 5 win

The Panthers had a blast in Game 5 in front of their home crowd of 11,551 fans because Knight let it happen. He became the second-youngest goalie in NHL history to win his playoff debut (Don Beaupre; 19 years, 202 days) and the eighth to win his postseason debut before age 21.

Coach Joel Quenneville turned to the rookie to be Florida’s third starting goalie in the series after Sergei Bobrovsky and Chris Driedger split the first four games, with each getting pulled once.

Knight, who found out he was starting Sunday, made 21 saves to close the first period after allowing the goal to Lightning forward Ross Colton in the first minute. 

“We came into the room thinking, ‘Boy are we lucky,'” Quenneville said. “Spencer put on a clinic and gave us a chance. That was our worst period in a long time.”

Knight stayed perfect as the Panthers got better. 

He made nine saves in the second period, when Florida built a 2-1 lead on goals from MacKenzie Weegar at 6:19 and Mason Marchment at 16:55. He made six more saves in the third period protecting a 3-1 lead after Patric Hornqvist scored a power-play goal at 35 seconds.

“You didn’t really see any nervousness on him,” Panthers center Aleksander Barkov said. “He’s a special kid. You don’t see that often. He’s so young, he’s so confident, technically really good. I could be here until tomorrow if you want me to say everything about Spencer. He’s just great.”

Video: Knight, Marchment lead Panthers to Game 5 win

Knight, the No. 13 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, wasn’t supposed to have this opportunity after signing his entry-level contract with Florida on March 31.

He completed his sophomore season at Boston College and backstopped the United States to a first-place finish at the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship, but all the Panthers wanted to do was get him used to the professional life and get him into one game.

An injury to Driedger allowed Knight to play four games in the regular season, three as the starter. He was 4-0-0 with a 2.32 goals-against average and .919 save percentage.

“His whole career coming up to joining us this year gave you every indication that he’s capable of doing it, and now it’s just an opportunity,” Quenneville said. “When he did play for us right off the bat his composure gave you every indication that he’s capable of handling any kind of situation. We’re in a situation where hey, we’ve got nothing to lose, so let’s go in there and have some fun with it. He did. He was great. That was a goalie win.”

Knight said his father, Chris, was able to make it down from his home in Darien, Connecticut, for the game. His mother, Lilly, couldn’t because she had to work. He said his younger sisters, Claire and Hannah, are busy with school, so they couldn’t be there, but found out after the game that some of his friends also were in attendance.

They all probably knew that an early goal against wasn’t going to faze him, that resetting would not be a problem despite the stage and what was at stake.

“You don’t have to say anymore,” Quenneville said, “The goalie won us the game.”

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