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3 takeaways: Knights strike early vs. Fleury, clinch playoff spot

Updated April 14, 2024 - 12:04 pm

It hasn’t been the smoothest road for the Golden Knights to get back to the playoffs.

They hovered near the cutline a month ago. Four teams were on their heels after after losing nine of 11 entering mid-March.

The light at the tunnel seemed miles away. It’s staring them in the face now.

They’ll get to defend their Stanley Cup championship.

The Knights clinched a playoff spot for the sixth time in their seven-year history after a 7-2 win against the Minnesota Wild on Friday at T-Mobile Arena.

“It’s a resilient group,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “I think there’s no doubt this is something they want to do.”

It looked bleak on March 7. The Knights lost their fourth straight game, 3-1 to the Vancouver Canucks, days after consecutive losses to the Columbus Blue Jackets (6-3) and Buffalo Sabres (7-2).

The Wild, St. Louis Blues, Seattle Kraken and Calgary Flames trailed the Knights by six points for the second wild card.

The Knights then won nine of 12 games to create some cushion, and they needed a combination of four points in the final four games.

The help came Friday with the Carolina Hurricanes winning 5-2 in St. Louis. A win in any fashion against old friend Marc-Andre Fleury and the Wild was all the Knights needed.

They didn’t waste time.

The Knights (43-28-8) scored three times in the first 8:35, capped off with a power-play goal from center Jack Eichel for a 3-0 lead and an advantage they wouldn’t relinquish against the Wild (37-32-10).

Center Chandler Stephenson had four assists for the fifth four-point game of his career, and center Tomas Hertl scored his first goal with the Knights to help end a three-game losing streak.

“I know it hasn’t been the prettiest year in terms of our play. It’s been inconsistent, uneven at times after a great (11-0-1) start (to the season),” Cassidy said. “I feel like since the deadline (March 8), our game has been better with the exception of the recent road trip.”

The Knights were outscored 16-8 on that trip, including six unanswered goals in the third period to the Arizona Coyotes, blowing a lead twice in Vancouver on Monday and being shut down by the Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday.

They returned home with a vengeance.

The Knights scored four times on the first 12 shots Fleury faced. The former Knights goalie, who played from 2017 to 2021, allowed all seven goals on 30 shots in what might have been the 39-year-old’s final game at T-Mobile Arena.

The Knights tied a season-high with seven goals set Nov. 4 against the Colorado Avalanche.

“The boys were hungry, and we wanted to make sure we did our part,” center William Karlsson said. “We got some help on the way, but overall, a really, really good game.”

It’s a different feel this return to the playoffs. The Knights will try to be the third team since the turn of the century to go back-to-back.

The territory, however, is unfamiliar.

This could be the first time the Knights enter the playoffs as a wild-card team. They trail the Los Angeles Kings by one point for third place in the Pacific Division with three games to play.

Los Angeles’ final three games are against Minnesota, the Anaheim Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks. The Knights also face the latter two, but have a showdown with the Colorado Avalanche on Sunday. It would take the Kings collapsing to fall out of third place.

The Knights would face a first-round matchup with the Dallas Stars, a rematch of last season’s Western Conference Final, if the season ended today.

That part is currently irrelevant. The defending Stanley Cup champions are in the field of 16. They get their chance.

“I like the way we’re trending,” Cassidy said. “We’ve punched our ticket, now we can start working on our game and then figure out who are opponent is.”

Here are three takeaways from the win:

1. Short-handed success

The Knights’ penalty kill has long been opportunistic when it comes to short-handed goals, but they had never done it in consecutive games until Friday.

Center Nicolas Roy’s short-handed goal that opened the scoring at 2:57 marked the first time this season they’ve recorded short-handed goals in back-to-back games.

Right wing Keegan Kolesar scored one against the Oilers on Wednesday. Kolesar also scored for the second straight game Friday.

2. Goal scorers galore

Eichel reached the 30-goal mark for the second time in his career with his power-play goal.

Doing so made Eichel the fourth player in franchise history to reach the 30-goal mark. Marchessault (twice), Karlsson and right wing Max Pacioretty were the others.

3. Hanifin excited to stay

Defenseman Noah Hanifin said it was a “no-brainer” to sign an eight-year extension with the Knights.

Hanifin signed a deal Thursday that will keep him in Las Vegas through 2032 with an average annual value of $7.35 million.

“Ever since my first day, it’s been a great place to come to work. Great organization, great players,” the 27-year-old said. “It’s an awesome culture, and they want to win.”

Hanifin said he wasn’t thinking about a new deal when the trade happened. He said he was focused on settling into a new environment and trying to help the Knights reach the playoffs.

He’s played his part. Hanifin had two assists Friday to give him 11 points (two goals, nine assists) in 17 games. He has a team-high plus-7 in that stretch.

“It went pretty smoothly, happened relatively quickly, and I couldn’t be more excited to be here for the next eight years,” Hanifin said. “I’m going to give my all. It’s a privilege to be a part of it.”

Contact Danny Webster at dwebster@reviewjournal.com. Follow @DannyWebster21 on X.

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