For the Golden Knights, it’s time to shift gears into playoff mode.
But if you’ve been watching closely the past week or so, you’ll have noticed the Knights have already begun the process.
They’re playing a little more dump-and-chase hockey.
They’re battling in front of the net. Coach Gerard Gallant is matching lines and mixing up his own combinations.
All are signs of a team that is preparing for the postseason. And with the Pacific Division title clinched with Saturday’s 3-2 win over San Jose, the Knights will face the top wild-card team in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which start April 11.
Who that opponent will be likely won’t be known until the weekend. It could be Anaheim or Los Angeles. It could be St. Louis or Colorado. Meanwhile, there are still three regular-season games to play, all on the road, beginning Tuesday in Vancouver, and Gallant will have some interesting decisions to make.
Does he rest some of his regulars? In particular, does he give Marc-Andre Fleury, his No. 1 goaltender, some time off? Will David Perron, Reilly Smith, Luca Sbisa and Will Carrier return to the lineup during the trip, which stops in Edmonton on Thursday and wraps up Saturday in Calgary?
“It’s a great feeling to win our division,” Gallant said after the Knights notched their 50th win. “Obviously, no one had those expectations at the beginning of the season. We played hard and worked hard all season long, so it’s a great accomplishment.
“But we all know what the real accomplishment is going to be. It’s all about the playoffs. Now that we know they’re there, we’ve got to get ready and make sure we’re set. That’s what is important to me. A great regular season means a lot, but a great playoffs means a lot more.”
Gallant’s players said the past week has felt like the postseason.
“I think it’s been that way the last few games,” center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare said. “The intensity seems greater. There’s less room on the ice. You’re battling everywhere to make plays. Yeah, it feels like the playoffs for sure.”
Defenseman Nate Schmidt said he also sees the transition process from regular season to postseason underway.
“It’s been more physical the last couple of games,” he said. “There’s not as much time and space. But it’s a fun time of the year, and I think everyone’s excited to be part of it.”
Gallant expects to have Perron, who has missed the past three games with what Gallant characterized as a minor injury, back for the playoffs. Same for Smith, who has been out since March 6 with a wrist injury; Sbisa, who has a cast on his right hand after being injured Feb. 27; and Carrier, who suffered an upper-body injury Feb. 4.
“I leave that to our medical staff,” Gallant said. “When they tell me they’re ready to return to the lineup, we’ll figure it out. But I expect to have everyone available for the playoffs. Whether they’re on the trip and they play, I can’t answer that right now.”
Gallant liked the way his team responded with back-to-back wins over St. Louis and San Jose as it builds momentum for the postseason.
“I think we’re playing well,” Gallant said. “We’ll see where the next three games take us, but we just talked about the last two games which were huge games and people talking about our team trying to clinch. We didn’t get the division title by going through the back door. We took advantage of our home ice and we’re playing well.”
“It’s all about points. You never know what the scenario is going to be down the road so let’s win as many games as we can. We’ll see what happens and try to keep our guys fresh and ready to go. I’m confident that our team is going to be ready no matter what the next three games.”
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Possible playoff opponents
Anaheim Ducks (Knights won season series 3-1)
Nov. 22 at Anaheim — Knights 4, Ducks 2
Dec. 5 at T-Mobile Arena — Knights 4, Ducks 3 (OT)
Dec. 27 at Anaheim — Knights 4, Ducks 1
Feb. 19 at T-Mobile Arena — Ducks 2, Knights 0
St. Louis Blues (Knights won season series 2-1)
Oct. 21 at T-Mobile Arena — Knights 3, Blues 2 (OT)
Jan. 4 at St. Louis — Blues 2, Knights 1
March 30 at T-Mobile Arena — Knights 4, Blues 3 (OT)
Los Angeles Kings (Season series tied 2-2)
Nov. 19 at T-Mobile Arena — Knights 4, Kings 2
Dec. 28 at Los Angeles — Knights 3, Kings 2 (OT)
Feb. 26 at Los Angeles — Kings 3, Knights 2 (OT)
Feb. 27 at T-Mobile Arena — Kings 4, Knights 1
Colorado Avalanche (Knights won season series 2-1)
Oct. 27 at T-Mobile Arena — Knights 7, Avalanche 0
March 24 at Colorado — Avalanche 2, Knights 1 (SO)
March 26 at T-Mobile Arena — Knights 4, Avalanche 1