Noah Hanifin: From deadline acquisition to Golden Knights playoff hero

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LAS VEGAS — Just two months ago, Noah Hanifin was in Calgary on a team sitting well outside of playoff position, without a contract beyond this year and facing an uncertain future.

Friday night he scored his second game-winning goal of the playoffs for the Vegas Golden Knights, pumping his fist in the air to the tune of screams from 18,432 fans because he had just pulled Vegas from the brink of elimination to extend the season.

Midway through the third period of a 0-0 game, Hanifin collected a loose puck at the blue line and immediately turned on the jets. He danced past Dallas Stars forward Ty Dellandrea for a shot from the right faceoff circle, fired the puck into traffic and celebrated with euphoria as the puck deflected past goalie Jake Oettinger and into the back of the net.

Hanifin was mobbed by teammates as smoke billowed from the corners of the rink and the goal horn blared throughout the arena. That goal ended up being all Vegas needed in a 2-0 win that tied the first-round series with the Stars 3-3 and forced a Game 7 on Sunday in Dallas.

It’s been one heck of a start to Hanifin’s Golden Knights career.

“It’s great,” he said, smiling. “More importantly we got the win tonight. It’s been a tight series. There’s not a lot of room out there. They’re a great team and they play really well defensively, as do we.”

Vegas goalie Adin Hill stopped all 23 shots he faced for his first win of the playoffs and third postseason shutout of his career. Both teams struggled to beat the goalies until Hanifin’s goal nearly 50 minutes in.

Hanifin is already up to 5 points through six games this postseason. He never scored in 27 playoff games over three separate playoff runs with the Flames but already has two goals this year for Vegas.

“He certainly has good instincts offensively, in terms of being assertive and on his toes,” Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said. “That’s what happened up there with the goal that he scored (in Game 2). He snuck into the slot and found a loose puck.”

Hanifin’s best asset is his skating. He’s not the fastest in a straight line, but the fluidity of his edgework allows him to carve through the opposing forecheck and get to the dangerous areas in the offensive zone without risking getting caught the other way.

“I think his skating really sticks out,” captain Mark Stone said. “He’s poised with the puck, he makes really good plays, a good first pass, and really helps his partner out. When you have those guys back there that can skate and are kind of a one-man breakout, between him and Shea (Theodore), it helps us as forwards too. I know (Brayden McNabb) and (Zach Whitecloud) have done a great job getting little hold-ups for those guys to get wheeling and going.”

Hanifin played alongside Whitecloud on Friday night. It’s his third different defensive partner in the playoffs, and his fourth since joining the Golden Knights before the March 8 trade deadline. He hasn’t had much time to develop chemistry with anyone, but Cassidy said there may be an unintended benefit to that.

“At the end of the day, sometimes that’s good for a player,” Cassidy said. “All he does is go to the rink saying, ‘I’ve got to play my game, and the guy beside me will play his game, and we’ll trust each other,’ as opposed to some of the other stuff of it when you have a partner, you rely on certain things.”

It has been a whirlwind couple of months for Hanifin. It began with the days and days of rumors ahead of the trade deadline, wondering what city he’d be finishing the city in. On March 6 he was dealt to Vegas for a first-round pick, third-round pick and defenseman Daniil Miromanov. It was only the second time he changed teams in his nine-year NHL career, and his first time doing it midseason.

“It’s been great,” Hanifin said. “Ever since I got traded here I’ve been super excited about the opportunity of coming to a team with guys that have won. It’s a great culture here and I’m fortunate just to be a part of it. I feel good about my game and I’m just trying to contribute whichever way I can. I think that’s just part of the culture. Everybody does their job and contributes in different ways.”

He was also facing the uncertainty of an expiring contract, set to hit the free agent market this summer. That didn’t last long, as Vegas signed him to an eight-year extension worth $58.8 million on April 11.

“Being here for a long time in the future, I’m very excited about it,” he said. “I’m just going to try to keep building my game and keep building our team game.”

Hanifin has been a perfect fit in his short time in Vegas. It helped that he played in a similar zone-defense scheme as a Flame, but he’s taken no time to get accustomed to his new teammates.

“He’s a great skater, obviously,” fellow Vegas defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. “That’s the one thing he uses to his advantage. It just adds another element to the back end where we can use all six guys in every situation. I think if you look at last year, even as we move on here, the deeper you go the more you want to keep everybody fresh. It’s a huge advantage for us.”

Friday night, Pietrangelo led Vegas with 23 minutes and 12 seconds of ice time — a very modest number. All six defenders played at least 15 minutes.

“I think we’re at our best when we’re playing all six guys,” Pietrangelo said. “It keeps us fresh. It’s an advantage that we certainly used last year, and I think we’re doing it again.”

Hanifin’s best chemistry may be with the fourth-line forwards, Nicolas Roy, Keegan Kolesar and William Carrier. That trio was on the ice for both of his game-winning goals in this postseason.

“They’re incredible,” Hanifin said. “It wasn’t too fun playing against them when I was in Calgary. They bring it every night. They’re physical. They can make plays. They’re a line you can trust whenever they’re on the ice. They’re a huge part of our team and they were great here for us tonight.”

The fourth line plays simple, direct hockey. They get pucks to the net and crash the low slot, often creating room for Hanifin to dive deeper into the offensive zone for chances. His combination of quick feet and offensive instincts make for a perfect match.

Hanifin’s game winner Friday ricocheted off Stars defender Ryan Suter, but Keegan Kolesar’s net-front presence shielded Oettinger from seeing the release.

“Don’t forget Kolesar’s screen,” Cassidy said. “I don’t know if it goes in without the guy at the net front. That’s what it took to beat Oettinger tonight, is one that I’m not sure he saw.”

It was a thrilling game that extended Vegas’ season. The Golden Knights head to Dallas for a winner-take-all Game 7 on Sunday.

“We just have to carry that onto the road with us,” Hanifin said. “Just be composed, play our game and let it come to us. I think everybody is very excited for it.”

(Photo of the Golden Knights’ Noah Hanifin, right, scoring against Dallas goaltender Jake Oettinger: Stephen R. Sylvanie / USA Today)

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