Projections, experts say Golden Knights will make NHL playoffs

Updated January 6, 2018 - 5:58 pm

Full disclosure: This started out as an in-depth examination of the Golden Knights’ chances of making the NHL playoffs.

Lots of fun numbers and projections, that sort of thing.

Then, the Knights got hotter than Bitcoin and rendered all the fancy postseason math obsolete.

“I don’t see how they would not make the playoffs,” said Scott Stevens, an NHL Network analyst and Hall of Fame defenseman.

“I would find it remarkable if they didn’t make the playoffs now,” NBC Sports hockey analyst Keith Jones said. “To me, that is one of the few locks of the rest of this season.

“And I wouldn’t want to play them in the first round.”

The Knights (28-10-2, 58 points) reach the midpoint of the schedule Sunday when they host the New York Rangers (21-14-5, 47 points) at 6:30 p.m. at T-Mobile Arena, riding high atop the Western Conference.

And barring a historic collapse, the Knights will become the first expansion team to reach the postseason since the league doubled in size for the 1967-68 season.

“We’re not worried about where we are,” Knights coach Gerard Gallant said. “The points will take care of themselves. If we look down the road and say, ‘You know what? We’re in a good position, we’re in a good spot,’ then things go the other way on you.”

After Friday’s 5-4 win at Chicago, the Knights are on pace for 119 points, which would easily surpass the 1993-94 Florida Panthers (33-34-17, 83 points) for most points by an expansion team.

Last year, Nashville (94 points) was the final wild card in the Western Conference playoffs. Minnesota, with 87 points, was the final team to reach the postseason in 2016, and it took 97 points for Calgary to qualify as the second wild card in 2015.

The Knights need 37 points in their final 42 games to reach 95 points. That means they could stumble to something like a 16-21-5 record in the second half and still hit the mark.

“They’re winning games. They’re putting up points,” Maple Leafs forward Patrick Marleau said. “I think if they continue to do that, they’ll definitely be in the playoffs, for sure.”

The top three finishers in each division qualify. The next two teams in the conference standings, regardless of division, earn wild-card spots.

The Knights have their bye week after Sunday’s game, then enter a tough stretch that sees them play 10 of their next 13 games on the road.

“I think everyone was thinking they were going to fade off, but they’ve kept getting stronger and keep playing very well,” Stevens said. “It takes a lot of different pieces to make up a team, and I have to give them credit for how they put this team together.”

The Knights previously hit several significant early season statistical markers:

■ Since the NHL expanded to 30 teams in 2000, almost 80 percent of the teams in playoff positions on Thanksgiving reached the playoffs.

■ In each of the past two seasons, 14 of 16 teams that were in a playoff position on Christmas Day reached the postseason. In 2014-15, 13 of 16 qualified, and the Ottawa Senators needed a 22-4-2 finishing kick to grab an Eastern Conference wild-card spot.

■ Before this season, 17 teams in NHL history recorded 56 or more points through their first 39 games. All 17 made the playoffs.

“The beautiful thing about hockey is once you’re in the playoffs, there’s frequently a team that has you shaking your head in the first round and then believing in them by the time they make it to the Stanley Cup Finals,” Jones said.

“Would I predict that before (the season) or even at this time of the year that (the Knights) would be a team that would make it to the Finals? No, but I do believe that they can get through the first round.”

Two seasons ago, the Montreal Canadiens had the best record in the league at Thanksgiving and were in first place in the Atlantic Division at Christmas before missing the playoffs.

Stories like that make it easy for the Knights not to take their hot start for granted.

“Our guys haven’t said anything about (playoffs) because, the beauty of it is, we have a lot of guys that competed in that situation and they understand there’s a lot of season left,” Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “But, if we continue to play this way, we have to not be naive enough to think it’s a possibility, if we play the right way.”

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

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