DETROIT — Erik Haula was right when he said things are only going to get tougher now that it’s March.
All those points the Golden Knights accumulated in October, November and December have created a nine-point cushion over Anaheim in the Pacific Division as the NHL’s regular season enters its final weeks. With 16 games remaining, beginning Thursday against the Detroit Red Wings at Little Caesars Arena, the Knights own 89 points and are playoff-bound.
Still, what playoff seed the Knights secure remains to be seen, clouded even more by the rash of injuries they’ve dealt with the past few weeks. It’s become an attrition battle as the Knights continue to lose players and lose ground in the Western Conference. Nashville is the top team in the West with 95 points. The Knights, who have dropped four of their last five games, are tied with Winnipeg for second in the conference.
Forward Reilly Smith, the team’s second-leading scorer, was the latest casualty, taking a hit to the left side of his body late in the second period Tuesday in the Knights’ 4-1 loss at Columbus.
Smith, who appeared to be holding his left wrist as he skated to the bench, did not return and is not expected to be in the lineup on Thursday. Coach Gerard Gallant was not made available to provide any update on Smith’s status Wednesday as the team had the day off.
Smith joins a long list of walking wounded, headed by forward James Neal and defenseman Nate Schmidt. Neither has played in over a week, though both have been skating on their own in Las Vegas while the team continues its five-game Eastern Conference road trip.
Haula struck an urgent chord following the loss to the Blue Jackets. “We’ve got to be better overall,” he said. “We’re not hard enough right now. This is the hardest time of the year, going into March. It’s the last stretch.”
Also unavailable are forwards Oscar Lindberg and Will Carrier, defenseman Luca Sbisa and goaltender Malcolm Subban. Lindberg has missed the last four games and Carrier has been out since Feb. 4. Sbisa, who has already spent three different stints on injured reserve, has missed the last three games while Subban was injured Feb. 8.
It appeared Neal injured his hand against the Kings on Feb. 26 and Lindberg sustained a concussion in that game. As for the timetable for anyone’s return, the team has been steadfastly short on details. Only Carrier and Subban are on injured reserve, according to the team’s website.
The players who are in the lineup say it’s up to them to produce.
“It’s definitely tough losing a guy like (Schmidt),” defenseman Shea Theodore said. “He’s been such a key guy all year and plays a lot of minutes. We all have to step up as a group and try and compensate. And to lose Sbisa is tough as well. He’s a big leader in the room and it’s tough not having him here.”
Brad Hunt, who is getting to play with Sbisa out, said it’s a challenge to make up the difference without Schmidt and Sbisa.
“(Schmidt) and Sbisa are huge parts of our lineup,” Hunt said.”But when you get the opportunity you’ve got to take advantage of it.”
“We’re going to have some hiccups and some speed bumps along the way,” Hunt said. “But it’s one of those things where we’ve got to step up and we’ve got to do a good job.”
■ Who: Golden Knights at Red Wings
■ When: 4:30 p.m. Thursday
■ Where: Little Caesars Arena, Detroit
■ TV: AT&T SportsNet (Cox 313/1313, DirecTV 684, CenturyLink 760/1760, U-verse 757/1757)
■ Radio: KRLV (98.9 FM, 1340 AM)
■ Line: Golden Knights -140; total 6 under -125
1. Life without Reilly. The Knights are going to try to find a way to compensate for the loss of winger Reilly Smith, the team’s second-leading scorer. It could be Tomas Tatar’s chance to play with William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault on the top line.
2. Protect Fleury. The last time these teams played on Oct. 13, Anthony Mantha gave Marc-Andre Fleury a concussion after they collided and Fleury missed 25 games. Tuesday, Fleury got hit again. The Knights need to do a better job of protecting the goaltender.
3. The other new rink. The Knights skate in Little Caesars Arena for the first time. Former Red Wing Tatar said his new teammates will love the place, which has gotten rave reviews throughout the league.