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Knights will need to fight for playoff berth after losing skid

The Golden Knights spent the first 106 days of the NHL season atop the standings in the Pacific Division, either by themselves or tied with another team.

On Friday — after their 4-1 loss to the New York Rangers — the team was forced to look up for the first time. The Knights will continue to do so for at least the next nine days.

Their 1-5-2 skid heading into the All-Star break opened the door for Seattle to grab the top spot and other Pacific clubs to close the gap.

That means the Knights, who seemed poised to pull away from the pack after a 13-2 start, will have a fight on their hands when their schedule resumes Feb. 7 against Nashville. Their playoff spot is vulnerable. They’re at risk of a second straight early summer if they can’t turn their results around.

“It’s going to be an important stretch here until the end of the year,” left wing William Carrier said.

The Knights’ sudden slide brings up memories from last season, when they went from first in the Pacific at the All-Star break to out of the playoffs.

They’re in second this time around. Their 4-6-2 January caused the massive lead they built early in the season to slip away.

The Knights are still second in the Pacific with 62 points in 51 games. Their .608 points percentage in the 10th-best in the NHL. They’re one point behind first-place Seattle, which has played two fewer games.

A solid stretch of play could easily put the Knights back in the lead for their third division title in six years. Another losing streak could also drop them out of the playoff picture.

Third-place Los Angeles is even with the Knights in points with one extra game played. Fourth-place Edmonton is only two points back with a game in hand. Fifth-place Calgary — currently the first team out in the West — is five points behind the Knights with a game in hand.

That means the margin for error the rest of the way will be low, especially considering the opponents their rivals have coming up. The Kraken have the NHL’s second-easiest remaining schedule, according to the website Tankathon. The Flames have the third-easiest, the Kings the fifth-easiest and the Oilers the eighth-easiest. The Knights have the 12th-hardest.

“We just have to be ready for that push,” defenseman Shea Theodore said.

The Knights still have reason to be confident heading toward the stretch run.

They’re closing in on full health, with only captain Mark Stone and defenseman Zach Whitecloud still missing from the opening-night lineup. Whitecloud traveled with the team before the break and is near a return from his lower-body injury. Stone was not with the Knights, but coach Bruce Cassidy said Thursday “hopefully on the other side of the break we’ll see him.”

Last year’s collapse was fueled by key players in Stone, left wing Max Pacioretty and right wing Reilly Smith missing extended time. Having a healthy lineup would give the Knights much more of a fighting chance this season.

The team also entered the break believing it was close to turning things around despite its recent results. The Knights had a 132-116 edge in scoring chances and a 52-46 advantage in high-danger chances at five-on-five during their four-game road trip despite their 0-2-2 record, according to the website Natural Stat Trick.

They weren’t getting played off the ice. They just struggled to bury their looks. They’re hoping that changes once play resumes.

“We’re trending the right way,” Cassidy said. “We’ve just got to hang in there until the pucks start going in for us.”

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

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