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Golden Knights’ poor starts cost them first place in division

The Golden Knights have played 300 minutes of hockey in their past five games, all at T-Mobile Arena.

They’ve had the lead for 2:36. Less than 1 percent of the time.

It’s no surprise then that they are in their worst funk of the season, losers of three straight and four of five. They have fallen behind early and haven’t rallied with injuries depleting their firepower.

The Knights have five games before the All-Star break, starting Saturday against the Washington Capitals at T-Mobile Arena, to right the ship and try to reclaim first place in the Pacific Division. Seattle took the top spot by matching the Knights’ 58 points in the standings with one fewer game played.

The solution for the Knights starts at the beginning. They need to open games better, or they risk repeating the same patterns that led to their losing streak.

“We’re nowhere near where we need to be,” defenseman Brayden McNabb said. “It hasn’t been good. It starts with our start. Our starts have got to be better.”

The Knights have given up the first goal in each of the past five games. Each one came in the first period. Four came within the first six minutes.

What made the Knights successful early in the season was putting opponents in the same kind of early deficits. They scored first in 11 of their first 15 games. Seven of those goals came within the first five minutes. The fast starts helped the Knights open the season 13-2.

First periods have since become more of a slog. The Knights were plus-13 in the period in their first 15 games, the best mark in the NHL. They’re minus-1 in January through seven games. Their record this month is 3-4.

“I don’t think we’ve had urgency at the starts,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “We haven’t executed at the level we need to to put teams on their heels.”

Trailing has started to lead to a vicious cycle.

Cassidy said opponents are defending the team differently. They’re being more diligent in the neutral zone and limiting transition opportunities. The Knights, historically a team that’s great off the rush but not as strong in-zone, are struggling with the change. Their 2.57 goals per game in January are their lowest in any month this season.

One way the Knights could counteract that is by getting a lead. That would force opponents to take more chances and lead to more space in the middle of the ice. But when the Knights get behind, opposing clubs can stay in their structure. They can wait for mistakes. The Knights have used the same opportunistic formula on the road to great success.

The deficits at home thus play into their opponents’ hands. When the Knights get impatient and try to force a play in the neutral zone looking to get back into a game, teams are ready to pounce.

Even a more methodical approach is no guarantee of success right now with key pieces such as captain Mark Stone, left wing William Carrier and defensemen Shea Theodore and Zach Whitecloud out of the lineup. That’s why the Knights need to avoid falling behind, especially as fast as they have been.

The key for Cassidy is being more direct to start games until the team settles in. Don’t attempt a risky play that could lead to a turnover. His words Friday were “less is more, and simple is better.”

The Knights need to put that advice into action Saturday against the Capitals. Otherwise, their worst stretch of the season could continue.

“You see what happens,” right wing Keegan Kolesar said. “Our starts need to be better so we don’t put ourselves in those positions.”

Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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