Spencer Knight was the last player to leave the ice at the end of a hectic first period in his NHL career. The Florida Panthers tied him to an early lead and, after withstanding some late scares from the Columbus Blue Jackets, he paused just before heading into the dressing room for the first intermission and leaned up against the wall in front of the Panthers’ bench.
It was the day he waited his whole life and, for a moment, the ice was all his. A little less than two years ago, Florida took him with the 13th overall pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. It was the first time the Panthers ever spent a first-round pick on a goaltender and they envisioned turning to him in games like these — games with playoff implications in front of energized crowds in Sunrise — and they didn’t hesitate to throw him into one Tuesday. With fewer than a dozen games left in the regular season and Florida in thick of a race for a division title, the Panthers turned to Knight and the rookie delivered his new team to a 5-1 win in his debut.
“He might’ve been a little nervous,” All-Star left wing Jonathan Huberdeau said, “but it didn’t show out there.”
Knight saved 33 of the 34 shots he faced and gave up just one goal on a power play in the first period. Florida gave him a 2-0 lead in the first 10 minutes and he held on to win in his debut, less than a month after he was playing for the Boston College Eagles in the NCAA tournament.
Star center Aleksander Barkov and versatile forward Sam Bennett both scored in the first period, and Bennett and left wings Jonathan Huberdeau and Ryan Lomberg all scored in the second to pull away from the Blue Jackets at the BB&T Center. For the second straight day, the Panthers (30-12-5) led wire to wire to beat one of the worst teams in the league and gain ground in the tight Central Division race.
Florida, which moved into a tie with the Carolina Hurricanes for first place in the division on Monday, kept pace with the Hurricanes with their win Tuesday. Carolina beat the Tampa Bay Lightning, 4-1, in Tampa to stay even with Florida atop the Central, although the Hurricanes have played two fewer games than the Panthers, so they lead in points percentage. The Lightning slips three points back of Florida and Carolina, and the Panthers passed Tampa Bay for the second best points percentage in the division.
“I was glad to be able to contribute,” Knight said, “even in a small way.”
With nine games left in the season, Florida is 10-3-1 in its last 14 and on pace for its best points percentage ever. The Panthers took a gamble Tuesday to trust Knight to debut in high-stakes contest and found the goalie can more than hold his own in the NHL.
Florida knew it wanted to get Knight into a game at some point, so it informed him of the plan Monday. He had been on the active roster a few times, but never dressed even as a backup goalie. At the Panthers’ morning skate, coach Joel Quenneville told Knight he was going to back up Sergei Bobrovsky on Monday, then get the nod against Columbus (15-24-9) on Tuesday. He told his mother, who happened to be vacationing in Longboat Key with one of Knight’s sisters, and they drove across the state to watch him sit on the bench Monday, then his father flew down to South Florida on Tuesday, so all three could watch him debut Tuesday.
Knight was the first Panther out on the ice for warm-ups and skated a lap around his half of the ice as is customary for a rookie in his debut. It finally felt real.
“Going out for warm-ups was when I sort of really realized that, Oh my gosh,” Knight said.
By the time the puck dropped, Knight was a little surprised.
“I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I would be,” he said.
His teammates made it easy for him, too. Knight didn’t face any particularly difficult situations for the first 13 minutes until Patrik Laine squared up an open shot from the right circle with 6:16 left in the first. The star winger tried to place a shot over Knight’s right shoulder and the 20-year-old batted aside the attempt.
“We felt that he was going to be more than fine when he did get that chance,” Quenneville said, “so it was great to see him and I just love the composure.”
Knight finished the first period with 10 saves on 11 shots and the only goal he gave up came on a power play when Jack Roslovic buried a rebound to cut Florida’s lead to 2-1 with 3:44 left in the period. Roslovic briefly seemed to tie the game with 57 seconds left in the first, but his breakaway goal was wiped off the board when Quenneville challenged and the officials determined the Blue Jackets forward was offside.
When the game was over, there was no shortage of stars to potentially recognize. Huberdeau was the third star after scoring a goal and dishing out two assists. Bennett was the second after scoring twice, bringing his point total up to five in three games since joining Florida in a trade-deadline deal last week. Knight was the only correct decision, though.
The crowd of 4,321 greeted him with a shower of rubber rats and cheered as he talked through a postgame interview on the big screen. Even as the Panthers have built a cache of quality goaltenders with Bobrovsky and Chris Driedger, Knight has remained part of Florida’s future. He led the United States to a gold medal at the 2021 World Junior Championships in January and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as one of college hockey’s best players this year, and now he has an NHL win on his resume, too.
Panthers injury updates
Right wing Patric Hornqvist’s absence Tuesday was just a “maintenance” day, Quenneville said. The right wing will be ready when the Panthers face the Hurricanes on Thursday.
Quenneville is also optimistic defenseman MacKenzie Weegar will be able to return Thursday after he missed back-to-back games with an upper-body injury. He’s less optimistic about forwards Noel Acciari and Mason Marchment, who are both dealing with upper-body injuries, too. Acciari missed his third straight game, while Marchment left after the first period Tuesday and did not return. Right wing Owen Tippett took Marchment’s place on the top line after the injury.