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Tough roster decisions loom for Knights during playoff push

Tough decisions are coming for the Golden Knights.

It’s not because of poor performance. They just can’t play more than 18 skaters, and healthy bodies are trickling in with six games left in the regular season.

It’s a good problem to have for coach Bruce Cassidy. It’s also going to be difficult to figure out who comes out of the lineup.

“Injuries will dictate a change,” Cassidy said. “If there’s no injuries, we may make a change anyway to keep people fresh. We’re kind of getting up against it here in terms of the games, so we’ll make those decisions on a game-to-game basis.”

General manager Kelly McCrimmon made it a point to add without subtracting at the NHL’s trade deadline. No player from last year’s Stanley Cup run was moved, but the team added defenseman Noah Hanifin and forwards Anthony Mantha and Tomas Hertl.

Mantha’s arrival was obvious. The 6-foot-5-inch winger was asked to fill the role of captain Mark Stone (lacerated spleen) for however long he remains out.

Mantha has found a groove with the Knights with eight points (two goals, six assists) in his last seven games and goals in back-to-back games.

Hanifin came at the right time. Defenseman Alec Martinez was recovering from foot surgery when the Knights acquired the left-shot defenseman from the Calgary Flames on March 6.

He’s since become arguably the Knights’ best defenseman, with a plus-7 in 14 games.

“That’s one of the first things I noticed coming here. It’s a really good culture. It’s all about winning here, and the standard’s high,” Hanifin said. “That’s something you want to be a part of as a new guy.”

There’s the fine line of keeping everyone happy and figuring out which combinations work going into the playoffs.

Cassidy would like a rotation on the third pairing with Martinez, Ben Hutton and Zach Whitecloud. The opportunity could be there so long as Alex Pietrangelo (illness) remains sidelined.

Pietrangelo missed his seventh game out of the last nine Friday.

“We’re going to have to be fluid with that,” Cassidy said. “We’ve got eight guys who can all play in the league.”

Hertl is where the dominoes begin to fall.

The 30-year-old is close to making his Knights debut after being acquired from the San Jose Sharks on March 8. He’s been a full-contact participant in practice the past three days after recovering from left knee surgery he had in February.

Hertl could travel with the team for this two-game Western Canada trip and could play Monday in Vancouver.

Cassidy said Hertl will likely start at the wing because it’ll be easier to adjust to the Knights’ system of play.

Hertl’s debut will knock at least one winger out of the lineup. Paul Cotter is filling in for the injured William Carrier, who remains day-to-day with an upper-body injury.

Carrier’s eventual return will force another forward out. That could lead to one of last year’s Stanley Cup contributors — Brett Howden or Michael Amadio — being left out.

Stone coming back could push both out of the lineup.

There are a lot of factors in play for now and the future.

“I don’t know what the plan is when everybody is healthy. I’m ready for everything,” Hertl said March 11. “I’ve played for 11 years. I think I’ve played half (wing) and half (center). It’s great to see how deep we are.”

First thing’s first: The Knights have to officially clinch a playoff spot.

It’s not a matter of if, but when. Analytics website MoneyPuck has the Knights at a 99.7 percent chance to clinch. It would take a collapse of massive proportions for it to not happen.

The Knights could have potentially clinched Sunday had they not let a three-goal lead turn into a 7-4 loss in Arizona on Friday.

They will instead head into the final two road games of the regular season — at Vancouver on Monday and Edmonton on Wednesday — needing points to cement a playoff spot.

That’s the task that lies ahead for whoever is in the lineup.

“It’s a good problem to have,” Cassidy said. “All we ask now is if you’re not in, be a good pro, practice hard, be ready to go when it’s your turn.”

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

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