The Golden Knights reached the All-Star break with 30 games remaining in the regular season. A nice, round number.
And with the bye week starting Sunday, this seems like a convenient time to evaluate where the defending Western Conference champions stand.
Take it away, Alex Tuch.
“We’re heading in the right direction,” the team’s leading scorer said. “There’s still steps to be made. You know what? There was no excuses early in the year, and then we started picking it up and showed everyone that we’re still the team we were last year, that contender.”
Yep, that just about sums up what’s been a topsy-turvy ride to third place in the Pacific Division.
— The Knights opened 8-11-1 and were 29th in goals per game while defenseman Nate Schmidt served a 20-game suspension for testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance. Ticket prices plummeted on the secondary market. The locals were restless.
— From Nov. 18 to Dec. 20, the Knights went 12-4-1 to climb from seventh place in the division to the first wild-card spot. Paul Stastny returned from injury and panic turned to cautious optimism.
— A 9-4-2 run leading into the break/bye week helped put some distance between the Knights and the rest of the pack in the Pacific. Order was restored to the universe.
“Obviously, the last few losses here at home hurts points-wise,” goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. “But, with the start that we had, I’m proud with how the guys battled back to put ourselves back in playoff position. We have a little lead on the teams behind us, too. It’s positive. We’re going to use that break and come back fresh.”
The Knights (29-19-4, 62 points) trail Calgary (71 points) and San Jose (65 points) in the Pacific Division but own a 10-point lead over fourth-place Vancouver.
The second wild card in the Western Conference, currently Colorado, is on pace to finish with 85 points. The Knights are on track for 98 points, meaning it would take a massive collapse for them to miss the playoffs.
And there’s nothing in the numbers to indicate that will happen.
The offense recovered from its slow start and climbed to 14th overall in goals per game (3.00).
Since Nov. 18, the Knights scored the sixth-most goals in the league despite the top line of William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith enduring a prolonged slump and an injury to Smith.
During that same timeframe, the Knights are second in the league in goals allowed per game (2.56) behind the New York Islanders.
“I think that you see flashes and consistency from our team that over the last month and a half, that is the type of team that I remember,” Schmidt said. “I like the way that we can adapt to a lot of game styles. We can play a run-and-gun — not a complete run-and-gun with Pittsburgh — but play structured enough and open enough, a wide-open game, to be able to play against them.
“And then you can play heavy games. I thought outside of our power play in Winnipeg (on Jan. 15), we played a great game,” Schmidt continued. “You can play that heavy style if you need to. I think that’s the beauty of our team, and that’s what I like about our group is that over the last 25 games or so, you see that you can play a lot of different styles. You don’t have to rely on one thing to create something for you to win every night, one line or whatnot.”
Now that they’ve turned around their season, the Knights’ focus shifts to trying to catch Calgary and San Jose over the final two-plus months.
They embark on a four-game, seven-day trip starting Friday at Carolina when the bye week ends and will get a boost from the eventual return of Smith and forward William Carrier, both of whom are on injured reserve.
“I think it’s a good mental break. I think it’s good to get away,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “When you come back, everybody’s fresh and ready to go again for the last part of the season.”
Golden Knights at the All-Star break
Points: 68 (1st in Western Conference/Pacific Division, 2nd in NHL)
Goals for: 162 (t-3rd in NHL)
Goals against: 126 (5th in NHL)
PP: 18.7 percent (29-for-155, 21st in NHL)
PK: 82.1 percent (25 goals in 140 attempts, 13th in NHL)
Leading scorer: Jonathan Marchessault 46 points (17 goals, 29 assists) in 45 games
Points: 62 (5th in Western Conference, 3rd Pacific Division, 8th in NHL)
Goals for: 156 (t-11th in NHL)
Goals against: 139 (6th in NHL)
PP: 17.9 percent (29-for-162, 19th in NHL)
PK: 83.8 percent (24 goals in 148 attempts, 5th in NHL)
Leading scorer: Alex Tuch 40 points (16 goals, 24 assists) in 44 games