The Golden Knights are comfortably in the playoffs about two-thirds through the season.
Their hopes of repeating as Pacific Division champions largely hinge on how they get through a long stretch of home games that begins Saturday when the Columbus Blue Jackets visit T-Mobile Arena for a 7 p.m. game.
Vegas (31-21-4) is seven points behind division leader Calgary and five behind San Jose. The Flames have two games in hand and the Sharks have played one fewer game than the Knights as the stretch run begins.
The Knights are 11 points ahead of Vancouver for the third and final automatic qualifying spot in the Pacific.
Their outlook might not be as rosy had they not rallied for a 3-2 shootout victory over league-leading Tampa Bay on Tuesday, then overcome an early 1-0 deficit for a 4-3 win Thursday at Detroit.
Those victories have set up the Knights to make a run at the top of the division now that the schedule starts to get more favorable, at least in terms of travel.
“Every game is important, and like I said, we’ve got eight of the next nine at home, and we’ve got to make sure we’re ready to play,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “We usually play real good in our building, so they’re real important and hopefully we can gain a lot of points over the next eight or nine games.”
The Knights will start to reap the rewards of a hectic early-season travel schedule with 16 of the final 26 games at home, where they are 16-6-3. It starts with four straight home games, followed by a trip to Colorado before closing the month with four consecutive home games.
The opposition isn’t as friendly. Six of the eight teams that will visit T-Mobile Arena the rest of the month are in playoff position, including the Blue Jackets.
“We just need to play the right way, be ready for Columbus and take it one game at a time and get the energy off our crowd,” said Jonathan Marchessault, who had two goals in Thursday’s win.
Saturday’s game will be the first time the Knights have played at home since a Jan. 23 loss to Nashville that came right before the All-Star break and the team’s bye week.
The Predators visit again Feb. 16 in what figures to be an intense rematch after the last meeting included an alleged bite by Vegas’ Pierre-Edouard Bellemare on P.K. Subban’s finger.
Neither Calgary nor San Jose is on the schedule the rest of the month, but the Knights play each team twice in March.
While it’s too early for scoreboard watching, the Knights undoubtedly are keeping tabs on the Flames and Sharks.
Should Calgary play .500 hockey and get 28 points in their final 28 games, the Knights would need 36 points in their final 26 games to finish ahead of them.
That would represent a significant drop-off in play by the Flames, who are 34-15-5. The scenario also would assume the Sharks fall off their pace, which they have shown no sign of doing. San Jose is 11-3 since Jan. 1.
A division title would mean much more than another banner. The first-place team would have home ice through at least the first two rounds of the playoffs and draw a wild-card team in the first round. The second- and third-place teams will play each other, so a second-place finish at least would ensure a Game 7 at home.
“(Until) the end, I don’t see it loosening up,” goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. “We play a lot of games against our conference, so those are always important points. A lot of good teams, so we’ve got to bear down here. It’s good, though. Our schedule’s not too busy like it was earlier. Use the rest smartly and give a good push to get those points.”
Who: Blue Jackets at Golden Knights
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
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)
Line: Knights -160; total 6
1. Make the spark a fire. William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault were reunited with Reilly Smith on the top line for the second period Thursday and it paid immediate dividends, as Marchessault scored twice and Karlsson had a goal and an assist. The three hope it’s a sign of things to come and not a temporary flash of brilliance.
2. Hold serve. The home team has won all three meetings between the Knights and Blue Jackets in the brief history of the series, including a 1-0 win by Columbus in December. Vegas won the only meeting at T-Mobile Arena, 6-3 last season.
3. Distraction? Blue Jackets star Artemi Panarin, a free agent in the offseason who has been the subject of trade speculation, fired his agent Thursday night and signed with goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky’s representative. The news has triggered more speculation about Panarin’s and Bobrovsky’s future with the team, which is third in the Metropolitan Division after back-to-back wins on their road trip.
Adam Hill Review-Journal