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Knights face difficult opponents before NHL trade deadline

It wasn’t just the Golden Knights’ thrilling 4-3 overtime win against the Calgary Flames on Thursday that excited coach Bruce Cassidy. It’s what he saw during it.

Cassidy watched right wing Michael Amadio screen goaltender Dan Vladar on the Knights’ first goal. He observed right wing Phil Kessel battle for position in front of the crease on their third.

All season Cassidy has implored the Knights to have more inside presence, to fight to get to the hard areas of the ice. He believes that’s what it takes to create in-zone offense once the playoffs roll around.

The Knights did that Thursday. Against a Flames team that’s tied for the third-heaviest in the NHL, no less. The trick will be repeating that effort.

The Knights will find out fast if they’re capable of doing so. The next four games on their schedule are daunting, featuring three of the NHL’s best teams record-wise and the defending Stanley Cup champions.

“You have to be able to play in those (playoff-style) games and function in those games,” Cassidy said. “For me to see that part of it (against Calgary) is almost more important than the win, to be quite honest.”

The Knights can’t hang onto the euphoria of Thursday’s win for long.

Next up is Dallas, the team only three points behind them in the Western Conference standings. The Stars crushed the Knights 4-0 their first meeting of the season Jan. 16 in coach Pete DeBoer’s return to T-Mobile Arena.

After that, the team travels to Denver for its third and final meeting with the Avalanche. The Knights then return home to host Carolina and New Jersey, who have the second- and third-best records in the NHL, respectively.

It’s a harrowing stretch that should make it difficult for the group to extend its eight-game point streak (6-0-2). But it’s also an opportunity for the Knights to steel themselves for the challenges of the postseason.

If they’re going to win their third division title in six seasons, they’re going to have to earn it.

“Our schedule’s tough here … but sometimes it’s a good thing,” defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. “It prepares you for the playoffs.”

How the Knights fare during this stretch will set them up for the rest of the season.

They have a three-point lead in the Pacific Division, with a game in hand on their two closest rivals in Edmonton and Los Angeles.

The Knights have the ninth-hardest remaining schedule in the NHL, according to the website Tankathon. Los Angeles’ is the sixth-easiest and Edmonton’s is the 12th-easiest.

The Knights will still be in a good position if they end this four-game slate ahead. They’ll reassess the race from there. They and their competition may make tweaks before the NHL’s March 3 trade deadline, which is the same day as the New Jersey game.

The Knights are confident they’ll emerge in good shape. Thursday’s performance showed the kind of fight they’re capable of. They’ll have to find that same level their next four games.

“It’s going to be a tough stretch for sure, but we’re ready for this,” right wing Jonathan Marchessault said. “We’ve practiced hard. We’ve done everything right this year to be in a position like we are right now. It’s on us to sustain that pressure and the performance we were able to bring every night.”

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

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