With playoff spot secured, what do Knights still have to play for?
The Golden Knights clinched their fifth playoff berth in six seasons Thursday, but there is still much to be determined in their final seven regular-season games.
The Golden Knights, for the first time in 689 days, woke up Friday morning with an “X” next to their name in the NHL standings.
The letter signifies the Knights are playoff-bound after packing their gear early a year ago. They’ve achieved one of their primary goals from training camp, showing last season’s injury-plagued campaign was more blip than trend.
The team can now set its sights on larger prizes.
The Knights shouldn’t be content to just make the playoffs. They’ve been one of the best teams in the Western Conference all season, and boast one of the best records in the NHL since the All-Star break.
The final two weeks of the regular season will be about setting themselves up for success. Home-ice advantage isn’t a sure thing, and there are numerous matchups still in play.
More than anything else, the Knights will try to tighten up their play after losing two straight to Edmonton and San Jose.
“We made the first step,” center Nicolas Roy said. “Now we want to feel good about our game the next seven games. That’s the next step. From there, we’ll move to playoffs and figure who our opponent is and go from there.”
Coach Bruce Cassidy’s first priority down the stretch isn’t getting the top seed or the easiest opponent in the first round.
He wants the Knights to recover from the “very minor funk” they’ve been in, to start. Some of the team’s defensive details have slipped, and the Knights turned over too many pucks in dangerous areas in Thursday’s 4-3 overtime loss in San Jose.
After that, Cassidy wants to make sure the Knights are as healthy as possible for the postseason. That means trying to get injured players back and keeping the guys that are playing rested. The Knights’ last two practices between games were optional, a product of a busy schedule with frequent travel.
They still have seven games in 14 days to finish the year.
“We’re not the only team that’s battling through this grinding part of the year, mentally and physically,” Cassidy said. “The teams that can do it best will probably come out on top.”
Cassidy said if the Knights can improve their game and stay fresh, playoff seeding will take care of itself. There is still a lot up in the air.
The Knights have a two-point lead in the Western Conference standings on Minnesota, which they play in their next two games Saturday and Monday. Edmonton is also two points back with an extra game played. Los Angeles, which visits T-Mobile Arena on Thursday, is three points behind.
The proximity of the other contenders leaves the Knights with a variety of scenarios. They’d take on the second wild-card holder if they stay atop the Pacific Division and Western Conference. That’s Winnipeg as of Friday. However, the Jets are fading, and Calgary and Nashville still have a chance to get in.
The Knights would get the first wild-card team if they win the Pacific but aren’t top of the West. That’s Seattle’s spot for now. The Kraken will likely hold onto it barring a major winning or losing streak.
The Knights would almost certainly play the Oilers or the Kings if they don’t win the division. The second- and third-place teams in the Pacific face each other in the first round. The top three is pretty much set; it’s just about determining the order.
The Knights do have a degree of control over how things shake out. Six of their final seven games are against Western Conference teams in a playoff spot. The other is against the Predators. A strong final push should set the Knights up well.
“It’s obviously great to clinch a playoff spot and put our foot in the door there,” defenseman Nic Hague said. “We’ve got some huge games coming up to try and solidify a spot. All teams in the West and a couple big games against division teams to try to separate ourselves. Hopefully, we can have a say in who we end up playing.”
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■ Who: Golden Knights vs. Wild
■ When: 7 p.m. Saturday
■ Where: T-Mobile Arena
■ TV: AT&T SportsNet
■ Radio: KKGK (98.9 FM, 1340 AM)
■ Line: Knights -115, total 5½
— Golden Knights left wing Reilly Smith, who has missed the last three games with a lower-body injury, skated Friday, coach Bruce Cassidy said. Smith is out Saturday against the Minnesota Wild but could return soon.
— Cassidy also said captain Mark Stone has started skating “very lightly” as part of the recovery process from his Jan. 31 back surgery. The Knights have not ruled Stone out for the season.
— The Knights said a limited number of tickets for their first-round playoff series will go on sale to the general public at 10 a.m. Wednesday at vegasgoldenknights.com/tickets.
— The Silver Knights were eliminated from American Hockey League postseason contention with a 5-1 loss to Calgary on Friday. The team reached the playoffs its first two years.
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