A 12-point deficit in the Pacific Division with just 15 games to play may appear insurmountable at first glance.
But while the door appears closed on the Golden Knights’ chances to win the division, nobody has turned the deadbolt.
The Knights play two of their next three games against the division-leading Flames, starting 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at T-Mobile Arena with a Sunday rematch to follow in Calgary.
Any scenario of catching the Flames almost certainly includes a sweep for the Knights, but there is another complicating factor: San Jose is also right in the mix, trailing the Flames by just three points.
Both teams have one extra game remaining, increasing the challenge that much more. Hockey-reference.com’s playoff simulator lists the Knights’ chances of winning the division at 0.1 percent.
The caveat is that the Knights have four of their final 15 games against the teams ahead of them in the division, giving them a chance to make up ground quickly.
“You never know,” defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “If you go on a run, you have the opportunity to (catch them) because of the schedule. If we didn’t play them, it would be much, much harder. Because we play them, it makes it a bit easier to visualize and say, ‘Hey, this could happen.’”
Repeating as division champions is certainly something the Knights set out to accomplish and haven’t abandoned hope for just yet, but it’s not at the top of their mind.
“You’re always trying to catch people,” forward Max Pacioretty said. “I think we understand the position we’re in. Obviously, we dug a bit of a hole for ourselves, but at the same time you just worry about trying to peak at the right time. We’re lucky we went through that struggle when we did. We feel our game has really turned since so we want to do the best we can to pick up as many points as possible, but even more so just making sure our game is in the right place.”
The most likely scenario involves finishing in third place and starting on the road against either Calgary or San Jose. Should they advance, they would likely play the other of those teams on the road in the second round barring an upset.
Four straight wins since acquiring Mark Stone at the trade deadline have the Knights feeling confident regardless of the scenario. Still, only wild-card front-runner Dallas is currently in a playoff position of the teams they have beaten in that stretch.
The games against potential playoff opponents, like the Flames, provide an opportunity to send a message.
“Well, I think you have to have an understanding of where you are,” Stone said. “If you understand that if we want to have success, not only now but going forward into the playoffs, and be comfortably secure with a spot in the playoffs, these are the teams that we’re going to have to play. We’re going to have to beat San Jose. We’re going to have to beat Calgary.
“We’re going to have to beat these teams.”
The Knights are 6-9 against teams currently holding a playoff spot in the Western Conference and 12-17-2 against all teams that would qualify for the postseason if the season ended today.
One of those wins was a 2-0 shutout of the Flames in November just days after Calgary thrashed the Knights 7-2 in Canada.
If Vegas isn’t able to put a scare into the Flames in the standings over the final month of the season, it at least has a chance to let them know a potential playoff series will be a challenge.
“There’s a big mental aspect to this game because we could see this team (in the playoffs),” Schmidt said. “You want to plant that seed in there to tell them this is a hard place to play, an intimidating place to play.
“Hopefully we are an intimidating team to play against and we want them to know it. We play them again next week. The added edge that comes along with games like this in the last part of the season is really important.”
■ Who: Flames at Golden Knights
■ When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
■ Where: T-Mobile Arena
■ TV: AT&T SportsNet (Cox 313/1313, DirecTV 684, CenturyLink 760/1760, U-verse 757/1757, Dish 414/5414)
■ Radio: KRLV (98.9 FM, 1340 AM); ESPN Deportes (1460 AM)
■ Line: Knights -145; total 6
1 Flower in bloom. Marc-Andre Fleury has been at the top of his game, recording back-to-back shutouts to bring his current streak of not allowing a goal to 168:43 and earning the NHL’s first star of the week. It’s already the longest scoreless streak of his career and he has a chance to record a third-consecutive shutout for the first time.
2 Cooling off. The Flames have suffered two consecutive regulation defeats for the first time since November, allowing 10 total goals in home losses to Minnesota and Toronto. Those disappointing efforts come on the heels of a seven-game winning streak. The Flames have won their last four road games.
3 Late start. Knights fans are accustomed to 7 p.m. start times at T-Mobile Arena, but will have to adjust their schedules a bit for this divisional showdown that will start 30 minutes later. The delayed start was precipitated by national television coverage in Canada and the Flames are probably relieved to change things up in what has been a house of horrors. Calgary is 0-3 at T-Mobile Arena and has been outscored 13-3 in those matchups, including a 2-0 loss in November.
Adam Hill Review-Journal