It goes without saying that Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant would rather be atop the Pacific Division standings with 16 games remaining than battling for a playoff spot.
But the Knights’ current position could have an unintended benefit.
After coasting through the past six weeks, the Knights have been forced to take off the emergency break and clean up their game in order to hold off upstart Arizona for third place.
They’ll carry a three-game win streak into Sunday’s matinee against the Vancouver Canucks at T-Mobile Arena.
“Last year we were in an awesome spot. We were fighting for first place at this time of the year last year,” Gallant said. “I wish I was in first place again, but we’re battling for a playoff spot and it’s all about getting into the playoffs because the teams are so close nowadays.
“I like where we’re at. I like the way we played the last three games. Just keep going and keep building points.”
To Gallant’s point, there are several recent examples of teams that were primed for a postseason run by playing meaningful games in March.
In 2012, Los Angeles battled down to the wire for the Pacific Division title before finishing two points behind first-place Arizona. But the Kings went 12-4-3 in their final 19 games and won the Stanley Cup despite garnering the eighth and final seed in the playoffs.
Chicago took a standing eight count at the end of a Central Division battle royal in 2015 and finished with the third seed, two points out of second and two ahead of the first wild card.
The Blackhawks, who were 9-3-1 that March, won their third Stanley Cup in six years.
San Jose in 2016 might be the closest situation to what the Knights face. The Sharks finished 20 points ahead of fourth place and were unable to overtake Anaheim or Los Angeles for the top two spots in the division despite winning five of their final seven.
But they caught fire in the playoffs and reached the Stanley Cup Final before losing to Pittsburgh in six games.
All this goes to show that iron sharpens iron.
“I think it’s just more important for us to have gone through a little bit of perseverance this year and had to come out of the hole and dig ourselves out and battle a little bit,” defenseman Jon Merrill said. “You get to know each other better. You test the character of the group, and we’re a strong group, so it just helps us out that way.”
The Coyotes temporarily moved within four points of the Knights on two occasions last week, and the Knights lead Arizona by six points after the Coyotes’ 3-1 victory over Detroit on Saturday.
Vancouver, meanwhile, has faded in its past 10 games (3-5-2) after threatening to challenge for a playoff berth at one point.
“You want to be in that playoff atmosphere, you want to be playing these teams that are either pushing for a spot or pushing to get up the standings, because that gets you ready for the playoffs,” right wing Ryan Reaves said. “Those are better than teams that are just kind of trying to get to the golf season.”
One sign the Knights are no longer in cruise control is their recent play in the third period.
After being outscored 19-9 during the third in their first 11 games after the All-Star break, the Knights have a 5-1 advantage in the final period in the past three games.
“Before that, we had bad habits. But right now we’re closing games,” left wing Jonathan Marchessault said. “We’re up 2-0 going into the third period (against Anaheim on Friday) and playing the right way. We’re winning games that are 1-1 going into the third. We’re a pretty confident group. We know we can get the job done. We’ve been doing it the past three games, we just need to keep doing it.”
Who: Canucks at Golden Knights
When: 1 p.m. Sunday
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 -235; total 6
1. Front line production. It’s up for debate which is the No. 1 line for the Golden Knights at the moment, especially after William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith saw their ice time sliced against Anaheim. But that group also has accounted for 13 points (five goals, eight assists) in the past five games.
2. Block M. Defenseman Jon Merrill continues to solidify his spot in the lineup, despite one or two bumps in Friday’s victory over Anaheim. The former Michigan standout is two points shy of tying his career high (14) and has formed a solid pairing with Colin Miller.
3. Fading away. The optimist in British Columbia says the Canucks are only five points out of a wild card. But Vancouver has lost five of its past six to fall out of contention. Second-year winger Brock Boeser was a minus-4 in a 5-2 loss at Arizona on Thursday and was demoted to the second line.