SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Adin Hill heard fans chanting his name following one big save after another. He tried not to listen too intently.
After all, many in the crowd almost certainly didn’t know who Hill was as recently as a few months ago. An unheralded 27-year-old journeyman goaltender is now a household name because his play is one of the biggest reasons the Vegas Golden Knights are up 2-0 on the Florida Panthers in the final and two victories away from winning the Stanley Cup.
Game 3 is Thursday night and Hill will return to the arena he was drafted in eight years ago — the fifth goalie picked, 76th overall in 2015 — as a playoff starter who has come of age since stepping in during the second round. He has since gone 9-3, giving up just over two goals a game and posting an NHL postseason-best .937 save percentage. Paid $2.7 million per year, Hill has been better than two-time Vezina Trophy winner and $10 million per season netminder Sergei Bobrovsky of the Panthers so far in the final.
He also has one of the top plays in the final so far, a spectacular stick save in the opener.
“It’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had playing hockey,” Hill said. “I’m just enjoying it, cherishing every day. … I’m just living in the moment, and it’s been fun. It’s been awesome to be part of the journey with this team.”
While Bobrovsky got the hook, Hill has been quick with a jab. Florida’s Nick Cousins and Matthew Tkachuk have both gotten a blocker to the head when they have skated into Hill’s crease.
Hill even gave Tkachuk a hearty slash on the way out in Game 2. It’s his way of telling his defenders they don’t always have to stick up for him when opponents encroach on his space, a glimpse into Hill’s anger that usually only surfaces for a second or two when he’s playing video games.
“If guys are going to the net and stuff, you have to stand your own ground,” Hill said. “Our team all year, we’ve been disciplined but we’ll stand up for each other.”
Discipline has been an issue for the Panthers so far in the final. They’ve taken 25 penalties, including nine misconducts and another for abuse of officials.
Coach Paul Maurice said his team’s Game 2 loss “wasn’t a discipline problem,” as much of the time in the penalty box came after the score was lopsided. Florida can’t afford to be short-handed this much, especially with the Golden Knights’ power play finally clicking.
The Panthers have yet to score a power-play goal in the series, and part of that is thanks to Hill. He made four saves in quick succession early in Game 2 that altered the course of the game and allowed Vegas to pounce and build a lead.
Recalling Hill keeping the puck out of the net during that penalty kill, teammate William Carrier was at a loss for words.
“It’s hard to say,” Carrier said. “He’s been unbelievable for us since he came back. He worked hard at the end of the season there when he was hurt. He’s been unreal for us.”
Hill wasn’t even dressed for the first first round because of an injury from early March. Laurent Brossoit started Vegas’ first eight playoff games before he was injured early in Game 3 against Edmonton, pushing Hill into the lead role.
He’s quick to say much of his success is thanks to the team in front of him, and that’s by design from first-year coach Bruce Cassidy. His self-described goalie-friendly system allowed the Golden Knights to finish atop the Western Conference with five different guys in net playing — and winning.
“I feel like we want to be a layered hockey team and insulate our goalie from high-end chances all the time,” Cassidy said Tuesday. “But there’s going to be some, and (Hill has) been there every step of the way.”
Dating to his time with Arizona and San Jose, Hill expressed quiet confidence to teammates about being able to win consistently at this level. This run has shown it, even if the sixth-year NHL veteran didn’t doubt himself.
“I feel like it’s more ‘prove it’ to teammates and other people,” Hill said. “Stuff I’ve been working on for five, six years that might be finally kind of coming together.”
AP Sports Writer Mark Anderson in Las Vegas contributed.
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
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