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Knights’ winning streak sets up fascinating stretch run

The Golden Knights woke up Sunday morning looking down at the rest of the West.

Their five-game winning streak coming out of the All-Star break — punctuated Saturday by an impressive 5-4 victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning — has them back in first place in both the Pacific Division and Western Conference.

The hot start sets up a fascinating stretch run. Any fears of a second consecutive crash out of the playoff picture should be quelled. The Knights have a nine-point lead on scuffling Calgary, the first team below the cut line.

The rest of the Knights’ season will be about giving themselves the best chance possible to make a deep run. It won’t be easy, but performances like Saturday’s show what they’re capable of when things are clicking.

“This was a good team,” defenseman Brayden McNabb said after beating the Lightning. “They’ve won (the Stanley Cup) twice and been to the Cup finals last year, and for us to get a win, a big win and play well in the third period like we did, it’s big for our confidence.”

The Knights’ season felt balanced on a knife’s edge at the break.

They were only one point back of first in the Pacific Division when play resumed. They were also only five points ahead of the Flames, who had a game in hand. Plus, captain Mark Stone was out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery.

The Knights’ surge has them firmly among the NHL’s contenders again. Coach Bruce Cassidy told the group in a recent meeting that “it’s time to play winning hockey.”

The team has responded, outscoring opponents 24-9 the last five games while trailing for only 12:08.

“We’re more resilient,” right wing Jonathan Marchessault said. “We play a full 60 minutes instead of having a sloppy half a period sometimes. I think our effort has been better, and our support has been better as a unit of five out there. I think we just have to keep it going.”

The Knights are still in for a fight the rest of the way. Los Angeles and Seattle remain close behind, with Edmonton lurking as well. Winning a third division title in six years or even having home-ice advantage in the first round is not a guarantee.

The Knights’ road is also about to get tougher.

They came out of the break with five games in 14 days. They have 26 games in 52 days over the rest of the regular season.

The quality of opponents picks up as well. The Knights have the NHL’s 12th-hardest remaining schedule, according to the website Tankathon. Seattle, two points back in the standings, has the second-easiest.

It’ll be up to the Knights to overcome that and any other adversity they face along the way. They’ve already proven their mettle by making a push without Stone and goaltender Logan Thompson, who is considered week-to-week with a lower-body injury.

Now it’s about maintaining the new standard they’ve set to close the season. A strong finish should have the Knights well-positioned for another run at their first Stanley Cup.

“We came out fresh from the break,” left wing Brett Howden said. “That was kind of what our team needed. … We’ve been rolling with it and building confidence in each other. We just want to keep playing the same way.”

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

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