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Year 2, Game 81: Golden Knights lose 4-1 to Coyotes in Marc-Andre Fleury’s return

Fleury was great, but this game meant nothing for the Golden Knights and everything for the Coyotes, and it showed.

NHL: Arizona Coyotes at Vegas Golden Knights Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

The Vegas Golden Knights fell short in a 4-1 loss to the Arizona oyotes Thursday night at T-Mobile Arena. It was a relatively meaningless contest for Vegas, whereas it was a do-or-die situation for Arizona. That was evident throughout the night.

Yes, the Golden Knights theoretically could have caught the San Jose Sharks for home-ice advantage in the first round, but with the Sharks defeating Edmonton earlier in the evening, that possibility was out of reach. This game was a mere warm-up lap for Vegas and a chance to get Marc-Andre Fleury back on the ice.

The Knights allowed the Coyotes to take a sizable lead in even-strength high-danger chances early on in the game, and that lead was preserved throughout the night; in the end, Arizona held a 16-8 edge, which was representative of the game at large.

Mark Stone’s 33rd goal of the season opened the scoring late in the first period. Max Pacioretty made a great play to keep the puck in the zone, and Stone finished it, beating Darcy Kuemper on the backhand.

But Vegas’ 1-0 lead was short-lived, as Richard Panik knotted things up at 1-1 just 57 seconds later.

Derek Stepan added two goals in the second period, the first of which ended up being the eventual game-winner.

He capitalized on a tough turnover by Shea Theodore, showing great patience as he worked the puck around Fleury and into the net, giving Arizona a 2-1 lead at 8:24 of the middle frame.

Stepan potted his second of the game nearly nine minutes later, though there was some controversy on the play. Gerard Gallant challenged it for goaltender interference, but it held up, giving Arizona a two-goal lead with just over three minutes left in the second period.

The Coyotes put everything they had into this game because they had to. A loss would have eliminated Arizona from the playoffs, and it was still possible that a win would not be enough. It was a long shot, but the Coyotes came to play, and the performance was admirable. It wasn’t until the second intermission that the ‘Yotes found out their fate was out of their hands, as the Colorado Avalanche clinched the final playoff spot in the Western Conference with a 3-2 overtime win against Winnipeg.

To their credit, though, the Coyotes played hard in the third, finishing the frame with a Corsi For percentage of 59.46. Conor Garland broke a 14-game goal drought when he gave Arizona the 4-1 lead 12 minutes into the third, fully sealing the deal for the Coyotes.

Fleury, for his part, looked excellent. He made 37 saves on 41 shots, including several beauties in the third period. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare called Flower the team’s best player when he was interviewed in the second intermission, and Fleury definitely was tonight.

On the other hand, the team’s worst player tonight was Theodore. In fact, it was perhaps his worst game of the season. He coughed up the puck twice, leading to two high-danger chances, one of which ended up in Vegas’ net. Theodore also was on ice for two other goals against. On the bright side, it’s better to make these mistakes now and get it out of the system, provided it doesn’t happen again.

The Golden Knights didn’t play poorly in this game, even though their lack of effort was clearly a factor. Vegas had a 36-34 lead in shots and a 60-55 lead in Corsi at even strength. The power play went scoreless (it had just one opportunity), but the penalty kill went 2-for-2.

Still, turnovers in the defensive zone and lackluster defense wasted a strong game from Fleury. It’s not like the offense contributed much, either — just eight high-danger chances throughout the game and zero shots on the power play.

There isn’t a lot to take away from this game, though. The Knights looked like a team that was locked into its playoff slot, which makes sense. The good news is that Fleury is back, and his performance was promising as the Knights ready for their playoff push. Tonight was really just a chance to see those sweet golden pads again.

Vegas officially closes the book on the regular season Saturday night in Los Angeles. After that, the second season begins.