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Playing meaningful games in March sharpens Golden Knights’ focus

Updated March 2, 2019 - 7:56 pm

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.”

More Golden Knights: Follow at reviewjournal.com/GoldenKnights and @HockeyinVegas on Twitter.

Contact David Schoen at dschoen@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5203. Follow @DavidSchoenLVRJ on Twitter.

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